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opinion | Robert B. Reich

The real divide in America

leigh guldig for the boston globe

The antiestablishmenT backlash we’re witnessing in American politics — the surge of support for outsiders like Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson among Republicans, and for Bernie Sanders among Democrats — is connected to the view shared by many Americans that the current economic and political game is rigged against them.

Despite the recovery that began in 2009, confidence in economic institutions has fallen precipitously. In 2002, a Gallup poll found 77 percent of Americans satisfied with opportunities to get ahead by working hard, and only 22 percent were dissatisfied. By 2014, only 54 percent of Americans were satisfied and 45 percent dissatisfied.

Confidence in political institutions has followed the same downward trajectory. In 1964, just 29 percent of voters believed that government was “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” By 2012, that opinion predominated, with 79 percent of Americans agreeing.

The erosion in public trust has been particularly steep in the past few years. In 2006, 59 percent of Americans felt that government corruption was widespread; by 2013, 79 percent of Americans felt that way. In Rasmussen polls undertaken in the fall of 2014, 63 percent thought most members of Congress were willing to sell their vote for either cash or a campaign contribution, and 59 percent thought it likely their own representative already had.

Many Americans have expressed their mounting frustrations by not voting. The largest political party in America is neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party; it’s the party of nonvoters. Only 58.2 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 presidential election.


Turnout in midterm elections is always lower, but in the midterm elections of 2014 a measly 33.2 percent of the voting-age population turned out – the lowest percentage since the midterm elections of 1942, which, not incidentally, occurred in the middle of World War II.

The antiestablishment backlash can be heard in populist rhetoric coming even from the Republican Party. “[We] cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street,” said Republican senator Rand Paul, in seeking to position himself for a 2016 presidential run.


Republican Senator Ted Cruz, another presidential aspirant, has accused the “rich and powerful, those who walk the corridors of power,” of “getting fat and happy.”

The sincerity behind these statements might be questioned, but sincerity is not the point. Such statements are uttered because those who make them know they will be received enthusiastically by the voters they are courting.

Polls show, for example, support among self-described Republicans as well as Democrats for cutting the biggest Wall Street banks down to a size where they are no longer too big to fail. In 2014, Republican Representative David Camp, House Ways and Means Committee chairman, proposed a quarterly tax on the assets of the biggest Wall Street banks in order to give them an incentive to trim down. “There is nothing conservative about bailing out Wall Street,” said Rand Paul.

Similarly, rank-and-file Republicans as well as Democrats are in favor of resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, which used to separate commercial and investment banking until it was repealed in 1999 by a coalition of congressional Republicans and the Clinton White House.

In 2013, when Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation to recreate such an act, Republican Senator John McCain cosponsored it. Tea Party Republicans expressed strong support of the measure, even criticizing establishment Republicans for not getting more fully behind it.

There is also growing bipartisan support for ending “corporate welfare,” including subsidies to big oil, big agribusiness, big pharma, Wall Street, and the Export-Import Bank. Progressives on the left have long been urging this, but by 2014 many on the right were joining in. David Camp’s proposed tax reforms would have eliminated dozens of targeted tax breaks. Ted Cruz urged that Congress “eliminate corporate welfare and crony capitalism.”


Finally, grass-roots antipathy has grown toward trade agreements crafted by big corporations. In the 1990s, Republicans joined with Democrats to enact the North American Free Trade Agreement, join the World Trade Organization, and support China’s membership in the WTO.

But more recently, rank-and-file Republicans as well as Democrats turned against such agreements. “The Tea Party movement does not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” stated Judson Phillips, president of Tea Party Nation. “Special interests and big corporations are being given a seat at the table,” he said, while average Americans are excluded.

It is likely that in coming years the major fault line in American politics will shift from Democrat versus Republican to antiestablishment versus establishment.

That coming divide will pit much of the middle class, working class, and poor, all of whom see the game as rigged, against many of the executives of large corporations, the inhabitants of Wall Street, and the establishment billionaires, who are perceived as doing the rigging.

Robert B. Reich was US secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. He is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few,’’ published this week.


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