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How plutocrats, populists are driving a precarious moment in U.S. history

In "Let Them Eat Tweets," UC Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson says an unlikely alliance is putting democracy at risk

Donald Trump speaks at a 2016 campaign event

The presidency of Donald Trump is the culmination of a 40-year effort by the Republican Party to advance the interests of the super-rich in the United States, co-authors Paul Pierson and Jacob S. Hacker say in their new book, “Let Them Eat Tweets.” (Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

For anyone who wants to understand the rise and reign of Donald Trump, one question may be paramount: Why have laid-off industrial workers, hardscrabble farmers and ranchers, and millions who lack health care embraced a conservative movement that expressly serves the economic interests of America’s wealthiest 1%?

cover image of the book "Let Them Eat Tweets" by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul PiersonA new book by University of California, Berkeley, political scientist Paul Pierson and his colleague Jacob S. Hacker at Yale University offers a compelling, far-reaching explanation for this strange marriage — and they warn that it is putting democracy at risk.

Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, (Liveright/ W.W. Norton & Co.), distills the political, economic and cultural dynamics that have shaped U.S. politics during the past 40 years. From Richard Nixon in the 1970s to Ronald Reagan in the ’80s to House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, across a modern landscape wracked by vast economic inequality and escalating culture wars, the authors offer a scholarly, but vivid, analysis of how we arrived at this troubling moment.

“We see a very considerable danger to American democracy in the current period,” Pierson said in a recent interview with Berkeley News. “The threat to our democratic institutions has clearly grown. And it’s not an accident. As the Republican Party becomes more worried about its ability to appeal to voters, it is more drawn to pursuing strategies based on cultural and racial identity and division.”

At the core of Let Them Eat Tweets is a thesis: Conservatives in a democratic society cannot win elections by protecting only economic elites. They must expand the base. In highly unequal societies, that means persuading white working class voters to focus not on financial self-interest, but on race, conservative religious values and other perceived identity threats. The result is a governing alliance the authors call plutocratic populism.

[The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Berkeley News: You’ve written that Donald Trump is not so much the cause of the current tensions and conflicts in our political culture, but a symptom of a long-term evolution. Can you elaborate?

headshot of co-author Paul Pierson, a political scientist at UC Berkeley

Paul Pierson (Photo courtesy of Tracey Goldberg)

Paul Pierson: Trump, in many ways, is the end point in a long process that has been running through American society, but really running most directly through the Republican Party, over the last 40 years. Inequality is growing, and the Republican Party has chosen to embrace the winners from that growing economic inequality and to make them a core constituency of the party.

The basic challenges that a conservative party faces in a democratic system lead them to increasingly push claims about white identity and divisive cultural issues that can allow them to recruit and mobilize the kinds of voters that they need, even as they’re backing the big winners from the growth of inequality.

Let Them Eat Tweets describes an idea, a dynamic, that you call the “conservative dilemma.” How has that dilemma shaped our current politics?

It’s a challenge as old as democracy. What happens when you have a system where everyone, or most citizens, have the right to vote, but wealth is highly concentrated?

That’s the dilemma: Do they stay with the powerful traditional economic elites? Or do they respond to the economic demands of rising classes within the society? And if they choose to stay with those elites, then in a democratic system, they have to find other ways to appeal to a broader range of voters.

So, what has been happening to the Republican Party in the last 30 or 40 years is a modern version of what’s happened to conservative parties historically, again and again — in Latin America, in Europe and in the United States. You try to appeal to voters around cultural divides.

You seem to be saying that, for some segments of the population, issues of identity are more compelling than issues of economic self-interest.

I wouldn’t put it quite that way because, if you think about the development of the social welfare state in affluent democracies, you can see that people’s economic interests are pretty powerful motivators. People are drawn to the idea of universal health care, for example, or a good public pension system, like Social Security, or well-financed public education.

But cultural identity also is potentially very powerful — and it’s particularly powerful in divided societies. In the United States, we have long been fiercely divided racially, and that creates raw material for developing acute cultural or identity-based divisions.

Going back to Reagan and to Gingrich in the late 20th century, how has the Republican Party developed the mechanism that encourages this alliance of populists and plutocrats?

To be clear, we’re not saying this is some kind of vast conspiracy in which people are just led by their noses. There’s been an evolution.

Donald Trump, left, shaking hands with Ronald Reagan in an undated photo.

“Let Them Eat Tweets” details the Republican focus on supporting the nation’s economic elite, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to President Donald Trump today. (Photo courtesy of mccauleys-corner via Flickr)

We focus on the National Rifle Association and Christian conservatives, the evangelical movement, as the two most prominent examples. The right-wing media also emerge as an ‘outrage organizer.’ These groups come to the party because the party is going to help them get what they want. The right kind of Supreme Court justices, for example, is a goal for both the NRA and evangelical leaders. They’re not that concerned about economic inequality.

But then you have the Koch brothers (Charles and the late David Koch), who became very powerful players in Republican politics, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They want to see massive tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. They don’t want the federal government to be tightly regulating finance or environmental issues or workplace safety.

It works as an alliance.

The paradox is that the Republican Party is actually quite far from voters on issues like tax cuts or the minimum wage.

For at least 20 years, if you ask voters, ‘What’s your biggest complaint about the tax system?’ people will not say, ‘It’s too complicated,’ or, ‘I pay too much in taxes.’ Their biggest complaint is that the rich and corporations don’t pay their share. Even many Republican voters make that complaint.

And yet, every Republican in power since the mid-1990s has made it a top priority to cut taxes for high-income groups and for corporations. It’s been the one constant theme. As they’ve done that, they’ve had to raise the sense that their other voters are under threat. Their religious beliefs are threatened. Gun ownership is threatened. An America of unquestioned white supremacy is threatened.

Trump is, in some sense, the culmination of this process.

Does this tie into the COVID-19 pandemic? When the party is so focused on resolving this dilemma, is there a risk that it just won’t have the basic competence needed to govern?

Yes — period. The administration’s failure in this crisis has been complete and catastrophic. And that catastrophe is symptomatic of a political movement that has had a lot of interest in pursuing the priorities of plutocrats and very little interest in using government to address collective challenges. As a result, it has worked to degrade the government’s capacity at every turn, and we’re dealing with the consequences.

Tweets offers some prescriptions for the current dysfunction — and one of them is that the nation requires a healthy conservative party. But how do you improve the health of the Republican Party?

The party, as currently constituted, probably needs to lose decisively in an election to signal that the path that they’ve been going down is not going to be viable in the future.

Continuing demographic change means the Republican Party is quickly going to be unable to win fair elections without becoming a truly multiracial party.”

– Paul Pierson

The conservative dilemma is not going to go away. But you can hope that it can be resolved in a way that’s more moderate. That may mean offering ways to provide people with a decent education and a decent retirement and a health care system that they can afford.

Continuing demographic change means the Republican Party is quickly going to be unable to win fair elections without becoming a truly multiracial party. To win, it will have to make different appeals that hopefully would contribute to a healthy, functioning American democracy.

What if the party is not able to make that shift?

We see a very considerable danger to American democracy. Over the course of the Trump administration, the threat to our democratic institutions has clearly grown.

But parties do respond to political defeat. If the Republicans find that they’re out of power, they will face growing pressure to reform. Nobody wants to support and work for a losing party election after election after election.

I’m more concerned about what will happen if they don’t lose power, but continue to see the path of plutocratic populism as the path that they want to follow.