Democracy requires that all citizens—rich and poor alike—have influence over the policies their government adopts. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to have equal sway. Citizens differ not only in economic resources but also in time, knowledge, and interest in social and political affairs. Still, when influence becomes too skewed toward the affluent, when political power becomes too concentrated in the hands of a few, democracy itself is threatened.
If you accept those basic premises, then you have good reason to be worried about American democracy. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after studying the relationship between public policy and public preferences as revealed in responses to thousands of questions from national surveys conducted between 1964 and 2006. If you judge how much say people have—their influence over policy—by the match between their policy preferences and subsequent policy outcomes, then American citizens are vastly unequal in their influence over policymaking, and that inequality is growing. In most circumstances, affluent Americans exert substantial influence over the policies adopted by the federal government, and less well off Americans exert virtually none. Even when Democrats control Congress and the White House, the less well off are no more influential.
The one bright spot in this unhappy tale of unequal influence is that political competition increases the responsiveness of policymakers to the views of the public and generates policies that more equally reflect the preferences of all Americans. When elections are near and when control of the government is divided or uncertain, parties broaden their appeal, and influence becomes more equal. So the core elements of democratic government—electoral competition and partisan rivalry—force policymakers to take public preferences more fully into account.
But competition is rarely strong enough to create anything remotely resembling equal representation, and growing income inequality is pushing that ideal even further off.
In a world of polarized politics, it is easy to forget that rich and poor Americans often agree on public policy. For example, most foreign military engagements—whether popular, such as war in Afghanistan, or unpopular, such as the Reagan administration’s Central America policy—have had similar levels of support across the income spectrum. Different income groups also express comparable levels of support for education spending, the War on Drugs, family-leave laws, childcare and job training for welfare recipients, and the Medicare drug benefit. And income has little effect on opposition to a federal sales tax and broad-based income tax increases.
In fact, about half of the proposed policy changes in the study show differences of less than ten percentage points between the preferences of poor, middle-class, and affluent Americans (I use the 10th, 50th, and 90th income percentiles to represent these three groups).
If Americans at different income levels agree on a policy, they are equally likely to get what they want. But what about the other half of the time? What happens when preferences across income levels diverge?
When preferences diverge, the views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has almost no relationship to policy outcomes. Policies favored by 20 percent of affluent Americans, for example, have about a one-in-five chance of being adopted, while policies favored by 80 percent of affluent Americans are adopted about half the time. In contrast, the support or opposition of the poor or the middle class has no impact on a policy’s prospects of being adopted.
These patterns play out across numerous policy issues. American trade policy, for example, has become far less protectionist since the 1970s, in line with the positions of the affluent but in opposition to those of the poor. Similarly, income taxes have become less progressive over the past decades and corporate regulations have been loosened in a wide range of industries.
Nor do cross-class alliances work to dent the influence of the well off. When middle-class preferences align with those of the poor, responsiveness to the affluent remains strong while responsiveness to the poor and middle class is still absent. Low- and middle-income Americans have been united, for example, in opposing free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and in supporting abortion restrictions such as requiring the prior consent of the biological father. But the affluent tend to favor free trade and to reject these kinds of abortion restrictions. And the affluent few have gotten what they want.
What difference would it make if policy more equally reflected the preferences of all Americans? How would it change?
Greater representational equality would have a substantial effect on several important economic policies. We would have a higher minimum wage, more generous unemployment benefits, stricter corporate regulation (on the oil and gas industries in particular), and a more progressive tax regime. Some of these policies are favored by a majority of Americans at the 90th income percentile as well, but not with sufficient enthusiasm to overcome opposition from business and other interests. We would also see a more protectionist trade strategy and less foreign aid.
The views of the affluent make a big difference, while support among the middle class and the poor has virtually no relationship to policy outcomes.
We’d see little significant change in Social Security and Medicare, which enjoy strong support across the income spectrum. This doesn’t mean that these core welfare programs are beyond class-specific political influence, however. The small changes to which they’ve been subject—such as the increase in the Social Security retirement age and efforts to encourage Medicare beneficiaries to join HMOs—have been more consistent with the preferences of the well off.
The disproportionate influence of the affluent does not always move policy in a conservative direction. On moral and religious issues, the well off tend to be more liberal than the poor. More equal representation would consequently lead to greater restrictions on abortion, such as banning RU-486. There would also be tighter limits on stem cell research and more support for school prayer…
The mufti recounted with fondness a drive he made with his wife from Montreal via Toronto to New York in 1994. Somewhere past Niagara Falls, the couple stopped at a McDonald’s. All the seats were taken. “I was dressed like this,” the mufti said, pulling at the lapel of his robes, “and my wife was in hijab.” An American man, aged about sixty-five, got up and offered them his table. When the mufti declined, the man insisted, “I’m an American, and I can go home and eat. You are my guest.”
The gesture impressed Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, who became grand mufti, or chief Sunni Muslim religious scholar, of Syria eleven years later: “A good human being is a good human being. I don’t know if that man was Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.”
Mufti Hassoun belies the stereotype of the Muslim clergyman. He has preached in the Christian churches of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and he has invited bishops to speak in his mosque. His official interpreter is an Armenian Christian. “I am the mufti for all of Syria, for Muslims, Christians and non-believers,” he says, an ecumenical sentiment placing him at odds with more fundamentalist colleagues among the religious scholars known as the ulema.
The contrast with many other Sunni Muslim clergymen is stark. Another Syrian mullah, Sheikh Adnan al-Arour, broadcasts regularly from Saudi Arabia with a different message: “The problem is actually with some minorities and sects that support the regime . . . and I mention in particular the Alawite sect. We will never harm any one of them who stood neutral, but those who stood against us, I swear by Allah, we will grind them and feed them to the dogs.” Another Sunni preacher, the Egyptian Sheikh Mohammad al-Zughbey, went further: “Allah! Kill that dirty small sect [the Alawites]. Allah! Destroy them. Allah! They are the Jews’ agents. Kill them all. . . . It is a holy jihad.”
“I don’t believe in holy or sacred wars or places,” Hassoun said. “The human being is sacred, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or non-believer. Defend his rights as if you are defending the holy books.” His tolerance and acceptance of the secular state in Syria have earned the mufti condemnation as a mouthpiece for a repressive regime and threats from Salafist Muslims, whose interpretation of Islam excludes tolerance of atheists, Christians, and Shiites. Yet the mufti’s views are not atypical in Syria, where Islam and Christianity have co-existed for fifteen centuries, and which the Greek poet Meleager of Gadara called, in the first century BC, “one country which is the whole world.”
The world of communities dwelling in Syria includes its Sunni Muslim Arab majority alongside a multitude of minorities: Sunni Kurds; Armenian and Arab Christians of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations; Assyrians; Circassians; Kurdish Yazidis, with their roots in the teachings of Zoroaster; and the quasi-Shiite Muslim sects of Druze, Ismailis, and Ala-wites. The Syrian population included several thousand Jews, descendants of ancient communities, until President Hafez al-Assad lifted restrictions on their right to emigrate in 1992. The country is one of the few places where Aramaic, the regional lingua franca at the time of Christ, is still spoken. In one Aramaic-speaking village, Maalula, it was not unusual for Muslim women to pray with Christians for the births of healthy children at the convent of Saint Takla.
In April of this year, in both Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two largest cities, three Sunni Muslim taxi drivers offered unprompted assessments of their Christian fellow citizens as we passed their churches. All of them said they were “very good people.” In my Damascus hotel one day, a young Muslim man was listening to the radio. “It’s not a song,” he explained, as the Lebanese singer Feyrouz and a choir chanted a cappella. “It’s church music. My name is Hussein, but I love this music.” These statements came not from officials, nor even in interviews, and indicated strong attachments to diversity within the country.
Everyone in Syria interprets phenomena and events through the prism of political loyalty. To regime opponents, all car bombs—including those that kill busloads of security forces—are planted by the regime. To its supporters, all killings—even from shells fired by artillery pieces, which the rebels do not possess—are opposition crimes. (Human Rights Watch reports offer evidence of murder and kidnappings by both sides, although the regime, with its greater firepower, has been able to inflict more damage.)
The disjunction is equally clear when it comes to minority communities. Defenders of the Assad regime claim the government protects the minorities, especially the Assads’ fellow Alawites and the Christians, against Muslim fundamentalists who would expel or oppress them if they came to power. Michel Samaha, a Lebanese politician with strong public links to the government in Damascus, calls the revolution against President Bashar al-Assad “a Salafist awakening.” Opponents insist the minorities’ security is part of the historical nature of Syria rather than the gift of the regime that came to power with Hafez al-Assad’s bloodless coup of November 1970. A Christian woman, who spent several months in prison for unspecified political crimes a few years ago, told me, “It’s wrong to say the government was helping the minorities. They are using the minorities.”
Anwar al-Bunni, a crusading lawyer released from prison in May last year after five years as a political prisoner, is a Christian whose opposition to the regime is total. His family has a tradition of resistance to dictatorship. He told me that he, his four brothers, and his sister have spent a combined sixty-five years in prison. Bunni’s offense was publicly to condemn the torture that his clients suffered. “There are thirty-seven ways to torture people in Syria,” he said in a basement office he has borrowed from a legal colleague because he cannot afford one of his own. “You cannot imagine the beatings, putting people in cold water. The German chair. This is a security force term. To crush the back, they fasten the hands and feet from behind.” He demonstrated this by contorting his arms behind his chair. “They make people stand for a week with their hands in the air.” He demanded a change of regime, saying it is too late for the regime to change itself. “I see suffering,” he said, referring to his clients. “I touch the torture. I need my children’s life not to be like mine.”
Unusually for a Christian, he did not fear Muslim fundamentalists’ taking power. “In the history of this country, there was no time Islam ruled this country,” he said, speaking of the post-Ottoman period. “In 1954, the Muslim Brothers lost the election.” Other Christians feared that, if genuine elections were held now, fundamentalists might win and deprive them of their religious and social freedoms.
When Bunni and I left the office, we drove by a vast sports complex. He told me it had recently been transformed into a security center, where some of the thirty-five thousand dissidents he believed the regime was holding were detained. It is difficult to know whether his figure is accurate. As Human Rights Watch has declared, “The exact number of those being held in incommunicado detention is impossible to ascertain given the lack of access to detention facilities.” The regime has granted the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the central prisons in Aleppo and Damascus, but other detention centers remain out of reach of international scrutiny…
July 17, 2012
I DON’T REMEMBER the missionaries’ names, only that one was blond and one was dark, one was from Oregon and one was from Utah. They arrived at our house on secondhand bicycles carrying bundles of inspirational literature. They smelled, I remember, of witch hazel and toothpaste. The blond one, whose hair had a complicated wave in it and whose body was shaped like a hay bale, broad and square, wiped his feet with vigor on our doormat and complimented my mother on our house, a one-story, ranch-style affair in central Phoenix that never fully cooled off during the night and had scorpions and black widow spiders in the walls. The boys—because that’s how they looked to me that evening, when I was 13 and my brother was eleven and my parents were in their mid-thirties—shook hands with us and sat down in the living room, where my mother had set out lemonade and cookies and my father had turned off the television so we could talk. They smiled at us. They smiled with their whole faces. Then they asked, softly, politely, if we could pray.
It was 1976, the Bicentennial, and not a good time for my family. We were sinking, mired in gloom, isolation, and uncertainty. We’d moved to Phoenix a few months earlier, driving a U-Haul truck from Minnesota that wouldn’t go faster than 50 miles per hour and didn’t have room for all of our furniture. We’d left the small river town where I’d grown up because my father, a corporate patent lawyer who loved to hunt and fish in his spare time, had soured on the Midwest. He felt bored there, constrained by dull conformity; a vision of fierce desert freedom had come over him. In Arizona, a land of opportunity, booming and unfenced, he planned to enter private practice and spend his weekends outdoors under the sky. He’d fly-fish in the mountains, he’d shoot quail, he’d buy a Chevy Blazer with four-wheel drive, and he’d take us deep into the red-rock canyons to hike and camp and hunt for rocks and fossils. We’d love it, he told us. Our fresh American start.
But it didn’t turn out like that. My father cracked. Too much longing and space, too little guidance.
It began when his own father died of lung cancer after a horrifying, swift decline. When my father returned from the funeral in Ohio, his legal practice was failing for lack of clients. Some mornings he didn’t bother to go to work, just sat on the bench at his bus stop and browsed the paper, waving on the bus drivers when they pulled over. He started talking to himself in public, while eating in restaurants or buying shotgun shells. The tone of his ramblings was punitive, exasperated, like that of an angry coach. Addressing himself as “Walt,” in the third-person, he charged himself with foolishness and weakness. “Walt, you pathetic idiot,” he’d say. “Walt, you ridiculous stupid little ass.” Sometimes strangers heard him and turned to stare.
The story of how the Mormons came was this: Headed home from a job-hunting trip to Blackfoot, Idaho, while changing planes in Salt Lake City, my father suffered a breakdown in the terminal. His haunted mind attacked itself, nearly paralyzing him at the gate. He pulled himself together and boarded his flight, where he found himself seated beside a handsome young couple that radiated serenity and calm. They sensed his despair and started talking to him about their church, the center of their lives, and about their belief that the family is eternal, a permanently bonded sacred unit. (One reason he listened to them, he later told me, is that there had just been a terrible flood in Idaho—the deadly Teton Dam disaster—and he’d heard stories of how thousands of Mormons had immediately dropped what they were doing and convoyed in from states across the West to perform acts of cleanup and reclamation.) The next morning, in his bed at home, he woke up thrashing from a nightmare. My mother threatened to leave him; she’d had enough. Flashing back to the couple on the plane, he opened the phone book, found a number, dialed it, and said he needed help. This minute. Now…
LAST WINTER, I SAT drinking coffee in my living room, watching Mitt Romney speak on television after narrowly winning the Michigan primary. The speech was standard Republican stuff, all about shrinking the federal government and restoring American greatness, but I wasn’t concentrating on Romney’s rhetoric. I was examining his face, his manner, and trying—if such a thing is possible—to peer into his soul. I was trying to see the Mormon in him.
My motives were personal, not political. I’d never been a good Mormon, as you’ll soon learn (indeed, I’m not a Mormon at all these days), but the talk of religion spurred by Romney’s run had aroused in me feelings of surprising intensity. Attacks on Mormonism by liberal wits and their unlikely partners in ridicule, conservative evangelical Christians, instantly filled me with resentment, particularly when they made mention of “magic underwear” and other supposedly spooky, cultish aspects of Mormon doctrine and theology. On the other hand, legitimate reminders of the Church hierarchy’s decisive support for Proposition 8, the California gay marriage ban, disgusted me. Deeper, trickier emotions surfaced whenever I came across the media’s favorite visual emblem of the faith: a young male missionary in a shirt and tie with a black plastic name-badge pinned to his vest pocket. The image suggested that Mormons were squares and robots, a naïve, brainwashed army of the out-of-touch. That hurt a bit. It also tugged me back to a sad, frightened moment in my youth when these figures of fun were all my family had.
As for Romney himself, the man, the person, I empathized with him and his predicament. He no more stood for Mormonism than I did, but he was often presumed to stand for it by journalists who knew little about his faith, let alone the culture surrounding it, other than that some Americans distrusted it and certain others despised it outright. When a writer for The New York Times, Charles Blow, urged Romney to “stick that in your magic underwear!” I half hoped that Romney would lose his banker’s cool and tell the bigoted anti-Mormon twits to stick something else somewhere else, until it hurt. I further hoped he’d sit his critics down and thoughtfully explain that Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences. Instead, Romney showed restraint, which disappointed me. I no longer practiced Mormonism, true, but it was still a part of me, apparently, and a bigger part than I’d appreciated…