Paul Pierson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Transformation of American Politics: Conversation with Paul Pierson, Avice Saint Chair in Public Policy, Department of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; December 1, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Setting the Stage for the Erosion of American Democracy

After looking at these first two books one can see how you landed at the book we're now going to talk about, which is called Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, which you co-authored with Jacob S. Hacker. What is the problem with American politics that you focused on?

Jacob and I start out by trying to demonstrate three things that we think we are able to demonstrate clearly, and if one buys that part of the argument, then it raises a whole lot of issues about what's going on with American democracy. book coverThe first claim is that the Republican Party over the last twenty-five or thirty years has moved way to the right from where it was, and that's pretty easy to demonstrate.

The second is that public opinion has not moved. This is perhaps more surprising to people for reasons that we could talk about. I think a lot of people assume that if Republicans are running the country and they move way to the right, it must mean that public opinion has moved way to the right. But careful students and scholars of public opinion who try to study systematically how people answer particular questions that are asked over and over again, and use that to generate measures of where the public is on a left-to-right continuum [observe that although] there are shifts -- it's not that it's totally frozen, and you could probably guess particular periods where things are swinging slightly to the right or slightly to the left -- but there's been no real movement over the last thirty years.

So if you put those two facts together, that the Republican Party has moved way to the right [but] public opinion hasn't moved way to the right, our conventional understandings of American politics suggest that should be a big problem for the Republican Party. They should be losing elections, right? So, the image you get in your mind would be Barry Goldwater, "better to be right."

And not winning.

And not winning. Right. But then you get to our third fact, which again, is hard to argue against, so I'd say it's a fact, that Republicans have been quite successful. They've clearly been successful in electoral terms. They're not winning big victories but they're winning enough victories to keep themselves in power, and they've been pretty successful in pursuing an off-center agenda, again not completely successful, but pretty successful, and puzzlingly successful given these first two facts.

Let me emphasize this. The title comes from off center because the pride of American democracy is the middle, the center.

Right. There's both a kind of casual conventional understanding which is that swing voters, the people who help to create a majority, are the ones who are going to determine what government is going to do. Political scientists have developed very refined and technically sophisticated models that essentially produce that same finding. You're not supposed to be able to govern off center.

By off center I don't just mean conservative. I'm not going to pretend that I would be ecstatic about a government that was pursuing conservative policies, but there's a big difference between a government pursuing conservative policies when there's clear public support for those policies. I wouldn't call that off center, I would call that conservative. By off center we mean that there is a disconnect between where public opinion seems to be and where public authority seems to be headed. That's why the subtitle of the book is The Erosion of American Democracy. It's not just because liberals object to what the conservative majority might be doing, but because it seems to reflect a breakdown of responsiveness and accountability.

The book is quite insightful in helping us understand how this new system works, and we're going to talk about that in a second, but first, I want to set the stage here. What's the institutional setting, how did we come to this point? Let's take a few moments to look at the structure and the setting. What sort of things have happened across the board that set the stage? As [you said], we have to look at the history. What has happened that should be the prelude, before we get into the analysis?

It's a great question. There are a lot of elements that we could talk about, but you're hitting on one of the key efforts of the book, which is to emphasize to people that this is not just a story of particular personalities or even of one set of actors who are more clever than their opponents. It's something that has deeper roots that are built into some of the major shifts that have been taking place in the contours of American society and that used to be understood in more structural terms rather than in the highly individualized, personality-driven terms that are often what the media chooses to focus on.

Let me mention a couple that you'd want to put front and center. One is the rise of inequality in American society over the last thirty years. There has been enormous inequality in American society, and it's not an inequality in the sense that the top third has more and the bottom third has less. The important shifts in resources have been from the bottom 95 percent to the top 1 percent. The 4 percent in between are kind of holding their relative position. The increase in inequality has been highly concentrated at the top end, to an astonishing degree that I don't think people wholly recognize.

At the same time that that's been going on, money has been becoming much more important in American politics. Campaigns are becoming incredibly expensive and media driven. Mounting a credible challenge in an election requires enormous amounts of money. So, you put those two things together and that's a very important structural change.

The other big structural change that I would emphasize at the beginning of this part of the conversation is the realignment of American politics in the South. In American politics, where traditionally the South was Democratic and created a majority Democratic Party, there was this odd coalition between quite conservative Democrats in the South and more liberal Democrats in other parts of the country. [This has changed] to a situation where the South is now overwhelmingly Republican and the most conservative and leading-edge politically of the conservative movement in the country. That's a profoundly important change that obviously has been a major contributor to the remaking of the Republican Party.

When you were talking about your book on Thatcher and Reagan you mentioned how the changing atmosphere there had effected a change in your [research] topic. Help us understand the emergence of this conservative network over the period from the time of Nixon and definitely through Reagan, who gives it a new push. There are a number of things that are going on here that also helped to set the stage. Talk a little about historically why you think that has come about, over and above the political mechanisms that you talk about in your book. There's a historical trend here, I guess.

There is a clear historical trend, and in the book we focus on -- I don't know if I'll say the culmination of the trend, because we don't know what's going to come next, but the fruition, at least, of this transformation of the Republican Party. I have to say that [compared to] the one that I wrote before, this book is not deeply historical. It does try to address some of these big long-term structural transformations, but the focus is on understanding the contemporary period and the way that this new Republican government operates. We wanted the book to be accessible to a general audience and we thought an extra hundred pages about the evolution of the conservative movement would not do that for most people.

But it is clear that there was a long-term development of a movement that was much more conservative than the old Republican Party that it replaced. A lot of that has to do with the Southern transformation, and the Reagan years as being a catalyst to that, but even the congressional Republican Party of the Reagan years was far more moderate than the party that exists today. Let me give you one quick example that illustrates that in a telling way.

If you look at the Republican House delegation in 1985, there are roughly 190 Republicans in the House at that point. Every year, the American Conservative Union does a voting score where they keep track of who they think has the right voting record -- there are many groups that do this. The ACU measures who's a devoted conservative, and there were only eight Republicans out of the 190 who received perfect 100 scores from the American Conservative Union. Two of those eight from twenty years ago are people who are now pretty prominent in American politics. One is Dick Cheney and the second is Tom DeLay. So, two of the four or five -- well, DeLay now obviously lost his role, but if you're thinking six months back, two of the four or five most powerful people in the United States were the very far right edge, extreme edge, of the Republican Party in Congress only twenty years ago.

How important in this historical context is this American ideology about the way things work in America? It's obviously something we see in our efforts to transform the world, a notion about the importance of the individual and free enterprise, and so on. Is this also part of setting the stage for what you later talk about as a tool of obfuscation?

That's a good question. It's a hard one to give a short answer to. I do want to emphasize that we do not believe -- this is why the second fact that I mentioned, that public opinion has not swung to the right -- we do not believe that the key to Republican success is that it has persuaded people of its world view. That just doesn't show up. Obviously, there are lots of conservatives in the country, there are more conservatives than there are liberals, but there are far more liberals and moderates than there are conservatives. And it's just not the case that moderates have been persuaded to adopt these views. But it is true that individualism runs deep in American political culture, and that if matters can be framed in ways to help to get people thinking along those lines, that's powerful politically.

There are definitely strategies that Republicans have developed which are designed to try to activate that focus on individualism. One example that we think is central would be the discussion about tax cuts in the United States, which has been central to the Republican agenda. The Republicans have not been successful because they've convinced people to prefer tax cuts to other possible ways of using a government surplus, which we had in 2000-2001. But they have succeeded in making sure that most of the conversation is about tax cuts and not about these other [possibilities], so they control the agenda in a way that essentially says to people, "Would you like a tax cut?"

If the agenda is controlled and the question is framed that way, then it does tap these individualist sentiments that you're talking about.

In the welfare book you had talked a lot about this whole question of institutional setting and the design of policy. What is it the Republicans have done and how are they doing it? That's an important issue, isn't it?

Absolutely. The big shift of terrain on which they've tried to pursue their agenda [began with] the relentless focus on tax cuts as the main entering wedge for changing the character of domestic policy. If you want to think about the roots of this book, it was Jacob and I sitting down in 2001 and pondering the first round of Bush tax cuts. The magnitude of what they were able to achieve in that legislation, without any seeming public groundswell of support, got us interested in working on this book. It's a tremendously important example of the way in which details of legislation and the structuring of legislation are being used to facilitate an off-center agenda.

In the case of the tax bill, I was pleasantly surprised to see some of this in the earlier welfare book in [examining] how you design a policy. Talk a little about that, because there are [many] different things that an empowered, very right-wing group who have taken control of the Congress can do to frame legislation, which leads to a situation where the voter generally doesn't know what's going on.

It's important to set the stage that in 2000 and 2001 there was no evidence in public opinion polls that people were chomping at the bit for a big tax cut. It's actually quite different. I think in 1980 you can make a totally legitimate case that Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of tax cuts. It was identified as a central issue by voters, he won a clear majority in the election, and he had a mandate to cut taxes. [It's] much harder to make that case for Bush. There's nothing in public opinion polls to suggest that the people wanted a big tax cut. In fact, if you ask people -- again, the backdrop for this was that there was a large budget surplus and projected budget surplus in 2001 -- the question was how to spend it, more a combination of things to do with those resources. If you asked people that question, which was asked repeatedly in polls, overwhelmingly people placed a low priority on tax cuts, a higher priority on reducing the debt, on shoring up Social Security and Medicare and other government programs.

It's clear that the White House knew this. We, in the course of our research, found a memo from inside the White House that stated flat-out that the public prefers spending on education and healthcare to tax cuts. "So, what do we do? We need to make sure that people don't see the trade-offs. We can present tax cuts in a way that looks like they're going to be affordable and are not going to interfere with all these other priorities" -- even though they knew that they were going to be much more expensive.

You can do a lot by designing legislation in ways that both make the legislation look less expensive than it's going to be, and also make it look like it's distributed much more towards average voters than it actually is going to be.

The first challenge, which Bill Thomas, who is the head of the House Ways and Means Committee, described as the goal of putting a pound and a half of sugar in a one-pound bag, was, "How do we get as many tax cuts in here as we can while convincing people that we're not going to be busting the budget?" You do that by using phase-ins and sunsets and various other gimmicks that we talk about that make the tax cut [palatable]. It's very peculiar, from a public policy point of view, why you would have things phasing in and phasing out over periods of ten years. Nobody had ever done it this way before. It was a new technique for doing budget policy, certainly on this scale. But it had the effect of making [it possible] to pretend that the tax cuts were going to be much smaller than they were.

And then distributionally, how do you make things look like the average voter is doing better than, in fact, they're doing? A central technique for doing that is to give regular voters, average-income voters, a tax cut immediately and phase in tax cuts for the well-to-do much more gradually. We have a powerful chart (if charts can be powerful) in the book that shows, over time -- so the time element again -- how the benefits of the 2001 tax cuts are distributed. In the first year, the majority of the benefits go to average-income households. Everybody got a letter from the president and Congress with a nice check, right there within weeks after the legislation passed. But over time the percentage of the benefits from the bill that are going to the well-to-do is growing, and the percentage that's going to the less well-to-do is going down, so that by the tenth year of the tax bill over 50 percent of the benefits are going to the top 1 percent.

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