Book Reviews

'Winner-Take-All Politics'

April 23, 2012

As the 19th Century turned toward the 20th, one of the major political power brokers was the Ohio republican Mark Hanna. “There are two things that matter in politics,” Hanna said. “The first is money. I can’t remember the second.”

Winner-Take-All Politics:

How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, By Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson. Published by Simon & Schuster.

Never were more honest words spoken by a political mover and shaker. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, professors of political science at Yale and Berkeley, respectively, invoke the ghost of Hanna in their best-selling and critically received book, “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class."

They clearly and unequivocally cast blame for our current economic malaise and the growing economic gap between the richest Americans and the rest of America squarely at the feet of our political system and its corruption by special-interest money.

More specifically, the authors claim “the current crisis is merely the latest in a long struggle rooted in the interplay of American democracy and American capitalism.”

Jacobs and Pierson dispute the common argument that globalization and technology are the drivers that turned America from “a broadland of shared prosperity” to a “Richistan of hyper concentrated rewards at the top.”

Instead, they argue that domestic policies have mattered more than economics and so a solution to the problem is within the nation’s control. That’s the good news delivered by “Winner-Take-All Politics.”

But one of the key points the authors make is the degree of organization that defines well-entrenched special interests.

And a sophisticated organization can concentrate focus and funnel money to corral lawmakers into supporting a very specific agenda either through direct action or through drift—an intentional policy to do nothing. This is a fundamental political strategy to bring the nation’s capital to a virtual standstill.

There may be no better example than the historic overuse of filibusters to prevent majority rule by forcing the passage of any legislation to have 60 votes in support rather than 51.

Unfortunately, most Americans are woefully unaware of most of what Jacobs and Pierson report either because they pay little attention or only pay attention to the echo chamber of their choosing.

The American novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote once said the Civil War was a national failure of compromise, and that compromise is the essential ingredient to a vibrant democracy.

It will be a tragedy if we continue on the current path.

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.



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