Setting the Agenda

Young, Banerjee and Schwartz’s Levers of Power

Proportion explains a lot in life. This has become painfully obvious in the era of COVID-19 when the underlying sociopathy of the US president and of the party he leads can most clearly be seen in their signal failure to understand what the numbers mean.

When clichés are true. Brussels Canal, Molenbeek.

At the most fundamental level, proportion creates a base level expectation, deviations from which demand investigation and explanation.

Why are people of colour disproportionately victims of carceral violence? Why are women underrepresented in higher-paying fields? Why does the United States have 4% of the world’s population by 22% of the coronavirus fatalities?

The answers to these questions tell us a lot about the underlying facts of our world.

Another such signal discrepancy is the subject of Kevin Young, Tarun Banerjee, and Michael Schwartz’s Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It.

Certainly, no one believes that democracy is really about the distribution of power evenly among the individual units of the adult population. Even in its earliest instances, democracy was never quite like this.

“Demos” in the Athenian political argot could alike mean “people” or the neighbourhood groupings that took on augmented political significance after the reforms of Cleisthenes.

This back-of-the-envelope idea of democracy was well summed up by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s comment that, “the ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country”.

Yet, if Roosevelt was right and it is the voters in whom the ultimate and decisive power in liberal democracies lie, the outcomes generated by that system bear little resemblance to their intentions.

From universal healthcare to limiting the availability of assault weapons to progressive taxation, the list of matters on which the desires of surveyed majorities are ignored by duly elected majorities with startling frequency.

Perhaps this should hardly come as a surprise in a country in which the electoral prospects of a president whose voter base accounted for only 25% of those eligible and who was notably unpopular even before botching the response to COVID-19 are at worst even money.

The authors of Levers of Power seek to answer two questions. The first relates to how is it that a small proportion of the population exercise such disproportionate influence. The second asks what the most effective strategies for countering this influence are.

The answers lie in the synergy between markets and political institutions. While the examples given are drawn from the United States, especially from the Obama era, they apply without significant alteration to Europe, as well.

Barack Obama’s tenure provides a rich vein from which to mine examples of the malign fusion of capital and bureaucracy.

Obama came to power with a clear mandate for change, with the Republican Party driven into retreat by the cratering of the economy in the last months of George W. Bush’s presidency.

With a clear mandate for a new course and control of both houses of Congress, the standard understanding of democracy would have led one (and did lead many) to expect the aggressive pursuit of a reformist agenda.

The result was a damp squib rather than the expected fireworks. Obama’s major legislative accomplishment was the Affordable Care Act, not inconsequential, but a modest return on the votes of such a large proportion of the electorate.

While it went some way to address the outsized role of emergency room staff as primary care physicians in the United States, the reach of the program was disappointing, and even this was only accomplished at the price of a gigantic payout to the insurance industry.

The Democratic government’s only other accomplishment of note was marriage equality. This, of course, was not a matter of legislative action, but rather of the avid participation of the Justice Department in the matter of Obergefell v. Hodges.

Although the administration’s support for marriage equality was pronounced, it was achieved not by legislation but by a majority of the Supreme Court, based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Adopted in 1868, following the Civil War, the constitutional amendment provided equal protection of the laws to everyone born in the United States, including citizenship to former slaves. Agreeing with Obama, the Roberts court extended its reach to gays and lesbians.

As Levers of Power notes, much of the Obama Administration’s inertia was due to the organised opposition of business groups to any attempt to shift the balance of power between employers and workers or to eliminate the peculiarities and loopholes in the tax code advantageous to them.

But, at the same time, Obama and the other members of his government viewed themselves as tasked with the defence of the interests of business, as well.

This is one of the key matters clarified by Levers of Power:  the interests of business and those of individuals are consonant, perhaps identical, is integral to mainstream liberalism.

In addition to the political agitation of the markets, the institutional structure of governments in both the United States and Europe creates opportunities for political gatekeeping.

As Lawrence Lessig noted in Republic, Lost, power in legislative processes tends to be exerted not at the point of voting but earlier on, at the point of agenda-setting.

It is less a question of voting down issues that groups with influence don’t want but preventing them from getting on the agenda in the first place.

A good example is the issue of immigration. In Europe, the topic is almost entirely owned by conservatives and the far-right.

If centre-left parties did more to set the agenda on migration in advance, instead of feeling forced to get tough on it later, populist parties would prove to be less influential.

Indeed, as oscillating public opinion on migration in Germany shows, hostility to refugees is only a measure of who got there first, not whether there is a general dissatisfaction with migration.

Take the case of Italy. At the height of Matteo Salvini’s tenure as interior minister, the refugee crisis was over. Arrivals were at a record low due to the previous government’s policies.

Yet, Salvini’s constant campaigning against the docking of refugee-laden ships, such as the Sea-Watch 3, and his attempt to prosecute its captain, Carola Rackete, made it appear as though an invasion was underway.

That’s just one of many reasons why new strategies are needed so that public perceptions of politics are based on reality and not right-wing propaganda.

Levers of Power argues for a strategy of confronting the interests of the 1% directly, at street level, rather than leaving such issues to the ballot box.

Although there is a tendency to believe that America, lacking a national social democratic party, is uniquely vulnerable to business interests, this is common to liberal democracies worldwide.

The EU, with its seemingly contradictory mix of hard and soft powers, and technocratic culture, is tailor-made for special interests to set agendas outside electoral politics.

Levers of Power is an ideal jumping-off point for addressing such deficits, particularly given what an overwhelmingly negative example US politics has set for the rest of the world.

That’s the value of the book’s focus on the United States, and why in an era of declining global opinion of the country, it’s a work whose lessons could be applied just about anywhere.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.