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Democrats need a power agenda, not just a policy agenda

Concentration of power is the problem, so redistribution of power is the policy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses a rally calling for higher wages for federal contract workers in the rain on Capitol Hill November 10, 2015.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Democratic Party has lots of policy ideas. But policymaking is downstream from power. The kinds of policies that get crafted, considered, and passed, reflect the balance of power in society. And for all the clarity and rigor Democrats bring to the policy debate, they don’t have a clear theory of power — who they think holds it, and what, if anything, they want to do about it.

But that’s changing. In Bernie Sanders’s focus on “the millionaires and billionaires,” in Elizabeth Warren’s proposals for accountability capitalism, in Pete Buttigieg’s emphasis on restructuring political institutions, in Kirsten Gillibrand’s plan to supercharge small donors, Democrats are beginning to have an overdue debate about how to change power structures such that they can then change policy structures.

That’s the context for the Roosevelt Institute’s manifesto-ish new paper, “New Rules For The 21st Century: Corporate Power, Public Power, and the Future of the American Economy.” The report, written by Nell Abernathy, Darrick Hamilton, and Julie Margetta Morgan, tries to fashion a left-wing agenda that synthesizes a theory of policy with a theory of power.

Their argument is simple enough: concentration of power is the problem, so redistribution of power is the policy. The idea that you can pass a bunch of policies fixing America’s problems without confronting the power structure behind America’s problems — as the Clinton and Obama administrations sought to do — is, in their view, the key to the past few decades of policy failure.

Think of it this way: The traditional economic analysis is that growth comes from innovation, innovation comes from competitive markets, and competitive markets come from government getting the hell out of the way. The Roosevelt authors say we’ve gotten that dead wrong. Yes, growth comes from innovation, and innovation comes from competitive markets, but competitive markets — be they economic or political — don’t come from a laissez-faire government. They come from policymakers breaking up concentrations of power, because the last thing power wants is competition.

The core of their argument is this line: “At heart, the role of power in our society is straightforward. Unchecked power does what it does best: It replicates and concentrates.” Power chokes off competitive markets, tilts political outcomes, rewrites the rules in its own favor.

Moreover, the idea that the rich and the powerful just want the government to leave them alone has been disproven again and again. What they want is to be protected from competition and subsidized by taxpayers:

Over the last 50 years, we see evidence of this approach in every sector of our economy. Agricultural giants not only fought for less oversight of food safety, but they also sought big subsidies for their companies. Drug corporations fought regulations that oversee the products that they introduce to the market, but they welcomed those that lengthen market exclusivity rights and allow their prices to skyrocket.

The story of this era, the Roosevelt authors say, is “we handed our government over to markets and handed our markets over to corporations.” The results speak for themselves. Slow growth. Weak wages. Rising inequality. The 2008 financial crisis. An angry populace that turned to an even angrier demagogue for salvation.

The Roosevelt Institute’s argument is to fight concentrations of power on every front, simultaneously. Wealth and estate taxes to stop the intergenerational transmission of economic power, higher personal and corporate income taxes to cut the accumulation of cash in the present, expanded antitrust enforcement to break up concentrations of corporate power, campaign finance reform to free politicians from their donors. The authors also want a new Voting Rights Act to expand political power, new protections for union organizing to build worker power, an expansion of the Supreme Court to build the left’s legal power, structural reforms to the Senate to curb small-state power, race-conscious investments in education and industrial policy to help marginalized communities build their power, and so on.

This kind of analysis is ascendant on the left, but it carries a grim circularity. The problem in America is that the powerful can rig all institutions and outcomes in their favor. The only way to fix America is to break the power of the powerful. The only way to break the power of the powerful is passing laws and reforms through the very institutions the powerful control. You can see the problem.

So, to quote Lenin, who also thought a lot about power: What is to be done?

Making popular power matter

The place where I part with the Roosevelt report — and the thinking it represents — is that it flattens power into a singular force, when it’s plural and even fractious.

The Roosevelt report tries to evade this by framing economic power as playing a puppet-master role, whipping up the white majority, or the patriarchy, or the disproportionately powerful small state senators, for its own ends. Sometimes, of course, that’s true. But sometimes it goes in the reverse direction.

Corporations would’ve liked to see the 2013 immigration reform bill pass. It was the nativist majority in the Republican Party that blocked the legislation. Billionaires would’ve preferred Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or even, in many cases, Hillary Clinton, to Donald Trump. Plenty of rich people — think Tom Steyer, or Bill Gates — care deeply about climate change, and find themselves locked in political combat with corporations and Republicans that don’t.

Often, the problem in American politics is not that power is too capable of expressing itself, but that it’s not capable enough. Our political system is designed to make the status quo the favorite in any fight. Sometimes it can be overcome — the Trump tax cuts are one example, and Obamacare is another — but failure is always likelier. Plenty of moneyed interests were excited by the windfall of Social Security privatization under George W. Bush, and the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce joined together to back Barack Obama’s infrastructure proposal. Both collapsed in Congress.

Implicit in a lot of thinking on the left is that they have popular majorities on their side, and those majorities are continuously foiled by powerful interests. The Roosevelt paper makes this point with a chart comparing the views of the wealthy to the views of the public on key questions:

Roosevelt Institute

They’re right! The biggest problem in American politics is that popular majorities should be far more powerful than they are. But in 2016, the candidate who got the second-most votes became president. He used the power he got to entrench conservative dominance of the Supreme Court. Add to that the filibuster, and gerrymandering, and the makeup of the Senate, and the rest of American politics’ grab-bag of counter-majoritarian structures. Successful democratic governance isn’t possible under those conditions.

The authors address a bunch of these blockages in their solutions section. They call for everything from a revamped Voting Rights Act to a restructuring of the Senate. But given all the other policies the report demands, they get lost in the shuffle. When you’re calling for everything, you’re calling for nothing.

If power is as, well, powerful as the authors say, it’s not going to work to confront every form of it, all at once. It’s not possible in a context where the main form of power you have access to — popular opinion — is blocked from expressing itself. And so, if you want to break the concentrations of power in American politics, the place to start is with the power of political institutions to frustrate the public’s demands for change.

Democrats have begun moving in that direction already. It’s notable that the first bill the House Democrats introduced was a package of political reforms. But holding the line on that prioritization will be harder if Democrats take back the power to pass policy, as the impulse is always to start with bills that immediately improve people’s lives, as opposed to bills that will improve the process by which you can improve people’s lives.

That’s where Democrats need to listen to the Roosevelt Institute: Our policy problems are downstream from our power problems, and so the best way to fix policy is to start by fixing power.

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