New Book Documents Washington’s "Secret War" Against the Middle Class

In their new book, “Winner-Take-All Politics,” professors Jacob S. Hacker, Yale University, and Paul Pierson, University of California Berkeley, chronicle a systematic redistribution of wealth in the United States over the last 30 years that has greatly widened the gap between the rich and the rest.

Subtitled “How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class,” the book starts off with statistics about the growing economic divide. For example, from 1979 to shortly before the Great Recession, the top 1% of earners received 36% of all gains in household income, and between 2001 and 2006, the gap grew even wider, with the top 1% garnering 53% of all household income growth.

This disproportionate gain at the top, note the authors, did not “trickle down,” nor did it make the U.S. economy grow faster than that of Europe, where workers enjoy more generous benefits and work fewer hours. Indeed, the authors dispel many of the myths about the root cause of the decline of middle-class America: financial globalization, the technological revolution and unequal access to quality education among them.

Rather, they argue, it is largely the nation’s hijacked political system that is to blame for the widening income disparity and stagnation of upward social mobility for middle- and working-class families. Specifically, they point to the efforts of highly organized moneyed interests to reverse the working-class friendly policies and regulations implemented from the 1930s through the early 1970s. Hacker and Pierson cite the heightened influence of big business in government, noting that from 1971 to 1982, the number of corporations with lobbyists in Washington increased from 175 to nearly 2,500.

Moreover, while President Reagan is often credited for this reversal of fortunes, the authors offer evidence that the engines of counterrevolution were in full throttle during the Carter administration, largely fueled by the amassing army of influence peddlers for big business and high finance. “Winner-Take-All Politics” argues that while fighting off reforms such as health care coverage, consumer protection and minimum-wage increases, and favoring lower taxes for the wealthiest are hallmarks of the Republican agenda, Democratic lawmakers are not consistent champions of the “little guy” either: “When it comes to fostering a winner-take-all economy, Democrats have generally played second fiddle to the Republicans. But there is one place where they can legitimately make a case for equal billing: support for Wall Street’s remarkable transformation,” say the authors

Near the end, “Winner-Take-All Politics” offers some solace to readers who feel despondent about the ability to turn back the tides. For instance, the digital revolution has empowered everyone with access to the Internet to get informed, get organized and get moving, note the authors. They also offer cautious optimism that the trend can be reversed, pointing to the reform movements of the early 20th century as inspiration.

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345