Winner-Take-All Politics
Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson
Simon & Schuster, $27.00 (hardcover)

This article is based upon remarks delivered at a symposium entitled “Has American Politics Betrayed the Middle Class.” It was sponsored by the Harvard Program on Inequality and Social Policy, the Ash Center on Democratic Governance and Innovation, and the Tobin Project. It took place on September 29, 2010.


Winner-Take-All Politics is an important book that comes at a crucial moment in the political history of the United States. Other than the usual outrage at our incumbent politicians, there has been a deafening silence in our broader political discourse, and even in professional scholarship, about the political causes of the financial crisis, the hegemony of business interests, and growing inequality. Hacker and Pierson have begun to fill that silence.

Winner-Take-All Politics is concerned first and foremost with economic inequality in America. The book cites a mountain of data to show how the very highest tiers in the nation’s income distribution—not just the top 10 percent, but the top 1 percent and the top 0.1 percent—have become much wealthier while income growth has stagnated at the middle and bottom. In 1974 the top 0.1 percent of American families earned 2.7 percent of all income in the country. By 2007, Hacker and Pierson write, “the top 0.1 percent have seen their slice of the pie grow . . . to 12.3 percent of income—a more than fourfold increase” (emphasis in original).

But why, other than in service of envy, should we care how much more the rich rake in? One reason is welfare—greater redistribution would help those who are less well off. A second reason is democracy. In pondering the question of how much equality democracy requires, Rousseau answered, “no one should be so poor as to have to sell himself, nor so rich that he can buy another.” From this vantage, the danger of inequality is not immiseration (though there is plenty of that), but domination.

Winner-Take-All Politics demonstrates how the wealthy dominate American politics. As political contests increasingly turn on the mobilization of money, they are no longer characterized by the rule of the median voter but rather by that of the median capitalist. Since the 1970s American business has more self-consciously organized itself to influence politics and policy. “The number of Political Action Committees (PACs) grew from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of the 1980s,” Hacker and Pierson write. (In January of this year, there were 4,859 PACs.) Both the Democratic and Republican parties adjust their policies to attract moneyed interests, whether by cutting capital gains taxes (the maximum rate fell from 50 percent to 28 percent in 1978) or failing to respond to malfeasance, such as during the recent financial crisis.

In understanding how politicians become champions of the rich, Hacker and Pierson focus on the “first face of power”—highly visible struggles that occur on a shifting and uneven terrain of institutional rules governing such things as: money in political campaigning, union organization and mobilization, and decision-making procedures—for instance, the super-majority requirement to end filibusters in the Senate.

But what about less visible dimensions? What else enables the corporate capture of politics? There are three factors that especially come to mind. The first is the structural advantage of capital in capitalist democracies. The political scientist Charles Lindblom famously described this as the market’s “punishing recoil mechanism,” which threatens politicians when they favor policies that contradict the interests of market makers and large market participants. President Obama may have had this mechanism in mind during his 2010 State of the Union address, when he said the financial bailout “was about as popular as a root canal”—but he did it anyway.

The second is the role of ideology and political culture. Antonio Gramsci distinguished between the “war of movement” and “war of position” in politics. Hacker and Pierson focus on the former—i.e., the visible political machinations in the struggle for policymaking power. However, the dramatic shift in ideology toward a neo-liberal and small-to-no-government position has also played an important role, if not one that can be directly reported in the congressional record.

To take one small example, according to Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, not one of his constituents has received a job from the federal stimulus. Yet about 25,000 people in Massachusetts received a paycheck from stimulus funds between April and June 2010 alone, which is equivalent to approximately 10,000 full-time jobs. Neither Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick nor the Obama administration has trumpeted this news. That the stimulus has become politically unpalatable even as unemployment remains the top concern among voters highlights the importance of the ideological war of position.

Finally, timing might also be crucial in maintaining or breaking capital’s grip on politics. Political scientist Pepper Culpepper has argued that we must be attentive to the ebb and flow of issues on the public agenda, whether they garner policy victories or not. Gains made when all eyes are on the economy and the sins of big capital will be rolled back when public attention drifts to other issues and business power can operate more comfortably, behind the scenes. This broader pattern may have been at work, in one way or another, for the past century and half in the United States and elsewhere.


• • •


Who killed American equality? Hacker and Pierson deploy the motif of the whodunit. For them, the culprit is not the usual suspect of skills-based technological change, according to which those who have greater skills and education inevitably are more richly rewarded now than in the past. As Hacker and Pierson rightly point out, the economic systems of Europe also depend upon highly educated workers, but inequality there has grown much less quickly than in the United States. Instead, the pair finger the organizational dynamic of American politics: once business interests organized themselves in the 1970s, they were able to manipulate the American policy process. Thus they have been able to block efforts to constrain executive compensation or re-regulate the financial industry even when large popular majorities would favor such policies.

Although Hacker and Pierson’s explanation of inequality is sound and refreshing, their failure to offer suggestions about what to do about it—a common omission in the political-science discipline—frustrates. So in response to the whodunit, I propose the superhero who could have saved the day, who could have saved equality. There are many candidates, each flawed, but also suggesting models for progress.

Could labor unions have salvaged equality in the United States? Hacker and Pierson rightly credit labor unions with improving wages and working conditions not just through voice at work, but also through the political sphere. The book ties the decline of organized labor in the private sector to hostile employer strategies and anti-labor legislation. Certainly those developments are important and maybe even definitive.

But organized labor might have fared better with a different set of political strategies and attitudes toward membership. It takes a special kind of talent, as the academic and activist Joel Rogers jokes, to go from the people who brought you the weekend to fat white guys with nylon jackets and pinky rings. The highly oligarchic and elitist attitudes of many labor leaders and their strategy of protecting existing members at the expense of new ones is well documented.

Political science may displace economics as the dismal science at just the time when we need new visions of political possibilities.

Efforts to revitalize the labor movement by organizing in new sectors began too late. And even then, they were half-hearted. When I suggested to one insurgent labor leader that there was a time when worker participation in labor was more vibrant, when the rank and file shared in strategies and political perspectives, he dismissed my reading of labor history as overly romantic. He insisted, incorrectly, that it is now as it has ever been: union members want to stand aside while leaders fight on their behalf.

There are some initiatives, such as worker centers, that have been more successful. Janice Fine and Jennifer Gordon describe how worker centers such as the Workplace Project in Long Island, New York operate outside the confines of organized labor and address the needs of workers—often undocumented—in such fields as construction and domestic work. The centers are growing rapidly, perhaps because they are more attuned to the needs of workers, more creative in their strategies, and more participatory in their decision-making and leadership styles.

How about social movements and progressive organizations? Could they have intervened to save equality? Hacker and Pierson rightly complain that many of today’s secondary associations and advocacy groups have settled into Washington D.C.’s professional lobbying model and become dependent on mailed donations rather than members active in their communities. There are strong pressures to behave this way—lobbying is expensive and most effective when carried out face-to-face, and a dues-paying member may appear “active” in the eyes of a politician—but the most effective social movements don’t succumb. Consider, for example, the network of conservative church-based organizations. They remain rooted in the social lives of their members without sacrificing political clout.

What about the institutions of democratic government? Instead of accepting the pleasing myths of deliberative law-making and popular self-government, Hacker and Pierson argue that U.S. political institutions allocate voice unevenly, thwart popular desire, and reproduce social and economic hierarchies in the political sphere. And yet our democracy’s institutions need not remain as they are. In Canada, Brazil, and the cities of Europe, as well as in the United Kingdom under both Labour and Conservative governments, and even in authoritarian China, we see an enormous amount of experimentation with new mechanisms of citizen consultation and even empowerment. Hundreds of cities throughout Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, for example, have adopted practices of participatory budgeting that empower ordinary citizens to decide how significant portions of the public budget will be spent.

Perhaps our political leaders could have saved equality. The last chapter of Winner-Take-All Politics depicts a beleaguered President Obama, savvy about organizational politics and attuned to Congress, but severely limited in his reach due to obstruction by Republicans, Wall Street, and the health-care industry.

But the will of the people can move presidents, who inevitably face special-interest pressure. “Fine, you’ve convinced me,” Franklin Roosevelt reportedly remarked to a constituent group about New Deal policies. “Now make me do it.” Hacker and Pearson argue that Presidents lead meaningful change when they are compelled to do so by popular organizing.

The political strategy of our current President seems to be an insider’s game of organizing key Congressmen, with very little concern for organizing Americans to “make him do it.” Indeed, if the obscenities of his former Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel offer a clue, this Administration regards those who challenge it from the left as substantially worse than moronic. Such is the conceit of the political cognoscenti.

In this regard the President seems to embrace a Schumpeterian theory of elite democracy: the people should be mobilized mightily during elections—in Rolling Stone magazine, Obama castigated those who were contemplating staying home for the mid-terms—but he and his team of skilled politicians and policymakers will take it from there, thank you very much.

This governing philosophy differs sharply from that of Republicans at least since Reagan. They seem much more accustomed to working with attackers from the right. Their governing style is, in this way, less elitist. Would Obama enjoy greater success with a governing strategy that genuinely reached beyond Congress and the Beltway, one that mobilized rather than demobilized the millions of new supporters from the 2008 campaigns? Perhaps.

Finally, what about the role of pundits and “thought-leaders”? Hacker and Pierson briefly discuss the importance of ideas and ideology, and they rightly cite the rise of conservative think tanks—the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and others—as playing a central role. Here is the tragic irony of ideological production in America. In the 1970s, conservative philanthropists began organizing to influence the realm of ideas in public policy and political discourse with an eye toward seizing the commanding heights of state power to advance their agenda. The move represented a twisted marriage between Leninist and Gramscian methods and Hayekian goals—Leninist because these conservative advocates of unfettered markets sought to seize the commanding heights of state power to implement their agenda and Gramscian because they sought to alter the terms of the broader political discourse in America.

In the ensuing decades, liberal and moderate philanthropy shifted in a pragmatic, policy-analytic, and problem-solving direction. Their idea was that if they invented better public-sector solutions, those solutions would be taken up in the marketplace of ideas. As a consequence, there is now little philanthropic funding directed toward developing and popularizing an ideology to counter conservative dominance. This result represents a choice, not institutional configurations or fate.

One might think that the counterweight would come from the ranks of political scientists and sociologists at American Universities, but few academics have come forward. In an article that commemorates the centennial of the American Political Science Review, Lee Sigelman surveys the kinds of articles that have been published in the Review. Sigelman isolates several categories including “policy prescription or criticism” and “policy prescription or criticism with presentation of empirical results.” During the intellectual ferment of the Progressive Era and New Deal period, 20 percent of articles fell into the two categories. Since 1967, however, only six of 1,526 articles in the Review fit in the two categories. Sigelman writes:

If ‘speaking truth to power’ and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal.

Political science may displace economics as the dismal science at just the time when we need new visions of political possibilities. Given this broader trend toward disengagement, we all owe Hacker and Pierson a huge debt. They are forging an important path in the field by working on problems that are of urgent concern to all Americans, by trying to understand how and why we got here, and by putting us in a position to imagine how we can do better.