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Who Broke American Democracy?

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Democracy is premised on equality, and all citizens are supposed to have an equal chance to influence political decisions. But for too long in the United States, the political and electoral systems have catered to the interests of elites and the well-off at the expense of those without a college degree.

PRINCETON – The current mainstream narrative in the United States holds that democracy is under threat from MAGA zealots, election deniers, and Republicans who are threatening to ignore unfavorable results (as well as recruiting loyalists to oversee elections and police polling places).

That narrative is true, but only up to a point. There is another, longer-running story with a different set of malefactors. It’s a story in which, for more than 50 years, Americans without college degrees have seen their lives deteriorate over a range of material, health, and social outcomes.

Although two-thirds of the adult US population does not have a four-year college degree, the political system rarely responds to their needs and has frequently enacted policies that harm them in favor of corporate interests and better-educated Americans. What has been “stolen” from them is not an election, but the right to participate in political decision-making – a right that is supposedly guaranteed by democracy. Viewed in this light, their efforts to seize control of the voting system are not so much a repudiation of fair elections as an attempt to make elections deliver some of what they want.

Consider some of the outcomes that are motivating this cohort. Even before the pandemic, life expectancy – a robust measure of social as well as individual health – had been falling for less-educated men since 2010, and for less-educated women since 1990 or earlier. Younger cohorts of less-educated Americans report more pain at all ages than did older cohorts.

Moreover, labor-force participation has been falling for decades for less-educated men, and since 2000 for less-educated women. Real (inflation-adjusted) median wages for men without a college degree have trended down since 1970. Less-educated Americans have experienced a drop in marriage rates, and a rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing. Church attendance has declined, and many less-educated men are adrift from any supportive institution.

According to a recent New York Times/Siena poll, two-thirds of voters believe that government “mainly works to benefit powerful elites.” This view is not confined to election deniers, or to Republicans, or to the less educated; but it is this last group that has suffered from the policies that political neglect permits. The federal minimum wage, for example, has not been increased since 2009.

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Likewise, US politicians sold the North American Free Trade Agreement and China’s accession to the World Trade Organization as win-win policies that would help Americans as well as Mexicans and Chinese. But, contrary to what economists promised and to what might have happened in the past, the subsequent job losses did not lead to people upgrading their jobs and moving to flourishing places. This was partly because those places were no longer affordable, and partly because the better jobs required something that the old jobs had not required: a four-year college degree.

True, there are exceptions. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) provided health insurance to tens of millions who were previously uninsured. But ensuring its passage meant buying off the health-care industry and thus trading away any chance of cost control. For most working Americans, health insurance is paid for by a flat tax on wages, which reduces pay for the least skilled and encourages firms to outsource and eliminate jobs. Given the financing of health insurance through the labor market, rising health-care costs are generating additional pressure on wages and good jobs for the less skilled.

Not only are votes in Congress biased toward better-heeled constituents; the issues that most concern non-elites – including single-payer health care, a public option for health insurance, and an increase in the minimum wage – never even make it on to the legislative agenda. Lobbyists are much more successful than voters at setting agendas.

It is very difficult (though not impossible) to be elected to Congress without deep-pocketed financial backing. While the US campaign-finance system rarely leads to outright corruption, it strongly selects for legislators who have a favorable view of business and of capital, not labor. Hence, congressional representatives eased laws in favor of, and blocked investigations into, the manufacturers and distributors of opioids that were poisoning their own constituents. It is hardly surprising that many of those who have been so mistreated are reluctant to accept vaccines promoted by a deeply mistrusted establishment.

Another problem is that firms have been increasing their mark-ups over costs, thereby redistributing income from labor to capital. Worse, this trend has been encouraged by a long-term weakening of antitrust enforcement, even though there is no popular support for weaker enforcement, nor have legislators taken positions in favor of it. The deed was done by regulators and judges who were selected for their expected susceptibility to pressure from pro-business groups.

The less-educated Americans who are at a greater risk of dying early did not all vote for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020; but many of them did. The overlap can be seen by tabulating “deaths of despair” – from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholic liver disease – across counties and matching them to Trump’s share of the vote.

But there is an even tighter connection between mortality and election deniers. The New York Times looked at mortality in congressional districts and found that deaths of despair were higher in the congressional districts of the Republican representatives who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s election than in the districts of the Republican representatives who did vote to certify. It is a case of democracy at work – albeit an angry, futile, and frustrated democracy.

Democracy is premised on equality. All citizens are supposed to have an equal chance to influence political decisions. MAGA voters may be threatening the system like never before, but they did not emerge from a vacuum.

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