How are Americans doing? Before the national upheavals of the COVID-19 crisis and the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder, we were doing okay—not bad, but not great either. Consider just two categories: health and education.
The United States lags most European countries in life expectancy. More than 27 million Americans have no health insurance, even though a majority of them work year-round. One in three Americans don’t see a doctor when they have a medical need, and health outcomes for Americans generally fall in the middle range among leading market economies across a variety of measures, even though the United States spends considerably more on healthcare than any other country.
National performance on K-12 education is similarly unimpressive. Among the 37 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks ninth in student performance on reading, 13th in science, and below average in math. Yet we spend more per student on primary and secondary education than all but three countries. Education is a key investment in our nation’s future, but we clearly aren’t getting value for our money.
Uneven Playing Field
Some might be quick to point to positive economic indicators. For example, the United States leads most countries in per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and trails only a dozen or so countries, which are either rich in oil or hubs for offshore financial transactions. GDP has increased 79 percent since 1980, after adjusting for inflation and population growth.
However, these gains were distributed unevenly. The after-tax income of mid-range earners rose only 50 percent, while the bottom half of earners saw their after-tax income grow only 20 percent. By a different measure, today’s real average wage has about the same purchasing power as it did 40 years ago. A large share of Americans is missing out on the gains of economic growth.
A clear indication of economic progress comes in answer to the question: Do you earn more than your parents did at the same age? The answer was “yes” for 92 percent of Americans born in 1940. For Americans born in 1980, the share was only 50 percent.
Americans tend to see the United States as the land of opportunity, where anyone with smarts and hard work can get ahead. Opportunity still exists, to be sure, but even in this area the United States is lagging behind other countries. A child born to parents in the bottom fifth of the U.S. income distribution has a 7.5 percent chance to reach to top fifth; economic mobility is greater in Denmark and the United Kingdom, and it is almost twice as high in our neighbor to the north, Canada.
Seven in ten Americans think the U.S. economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and they are correct. Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution today pay higher tax rates than billionaires, when all taxes, including sales, payroll, and property taxes, are taken into account. The relative tax burden on the bottom half has grown in recent decades, while the tax rates for the top 1 percent fell from 43 percent to 30 percent from 1962 to 2018. Tax rates for the top 0.1 percent decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent.
Failure to Deliver
The U.S. government is failing to deliver what most Americans need. Aside from the areas of health care, education, and inequality, U.S. efforts to address climate change are inadequate. Although greenhouse gas emissions have declined 12 percent from 2005 to 2017, the United States is projected to fall short of its 2025 targets from the Paris Climate Agreement. The United States has failed to provide sufficient leadership internationally to stem global greenhouse gas emissions, even as climate change is driving more frequent and severe storms, heat waves, and droughts, and is expected to impede U.S. economic growth.
Racial injustice remains deeply ingrained in American institutions and society. The brutal killing of George Floyd by a white police officer sparked protests in more than 700 cities and towns across all 50 states because it followed a widespread, long-standing pattern of police abuse inflicted on people of color, particularly black men.
Flagrant discrimination in law enforcement and in prosecutions of African Americans is reflected in a disproportionate incarceration rate, five times the rate for whites. Mass incarceration strains the social fabric of African-American communities and contributes to large disparities in employment. A stunning 35 percent of black men aged 25 to 54 are not currently working (incarcerated, unemployed, or out of the workforce altogether), twice the share of non-Hispanic white men. Many black men have given up looking for work because few employers offer jobs to former felons.
Great disparities in income persist. Black households on average earn less than 60 percent of what white households earn. And the accumulation of injustices has left an enormous gap in wealth: The net worth of black families on average is about 15 percent that of white families.
Immigration policy remains incoherent and ineffective. Detentions of unauthorized immigrants at the border have not only increased, they have also increasingly involved cruel measures such as separation of children from their parents at our southern border. There is a backlog of more than one million immigration court cases, and businesses that hire unauthorized immigrants are hardly ever prosecuted. Critics of current policy propose paths to legal status for unauthorized immigrants, including eventual citizenship for “dreamers” who came to the United States as children. But they offer no credible solutions to stem the tide of unauthorized immigration and frequently criticize enforcement of immigration laws, when they don’t call for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement itself. The debate over immigration policy has thus degenerated into a choice between inflicting cruelty to deter unauthorized immigration or abdicating responsibility for enforcing U.S. immigration laws.
America’s infrastructure is woefully inadequate. One out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition; more than two out of every five miles of urban interstate highways are congested; and more than 56,000 bridges are structurally deficient. The United States has no high-speed rail transport, though high-speed rail was introduced in Japan and in Europe decades ago. The Acela takes three hours to travel from Washington, DC, to New York. The Shinkansen covers the same distance, from Tokyo to Nagoya, in about one hour and 40 minutes, and the TGV from Paris to Rennes is almost as fast.
A major investment in rebuilding America’s infrastructure ought to attract support across the political spectrum and provide a non-controversial opportunity to address national needs; yet public funding for infrastructure actually declined by 8 percent from 2003 to 2017. Agreement to invest in research and development (R&D) should be even more straightforward. It, too, has been repeatedly overtaken by partisan priorities.
R&D is fundamental to American innovation and to America’s strategic competition with China. The U.S. lead in innovation is under serious challenge from China, which is creating world-class industries in 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biotechnology, and is working to establish dominant domestic markets in robotics, new-energy vehicles, and medical devices as well. China is applying artificial intelligence and big data processing to conduct ever more intrusive and extensive surveillance and compile “social credit scores” to exert greater control over citizens’ lives.
China has already surpassed the United States in applications for international patents and has nearly doubled its rate of investment in R&D since 2004, while U.S. spending on R&D over the same period only increased from 2.5 percent to 2.8 percent of GDP. The rate of U.S. spending lags behind several countries, including Israel, which spends 4.9 percent of GDP on R&D.
Americans appear largely resigned to this mediocre national performance and dysfunctional governance. While many bemoan these failures and express a desire for change in elections, voters tend to choose leaders who at best offer variations on these themes. And so we typically treat dysfunctional governance as the inevitable result of deeply ingrained partisan polarization. Partisan polarization both reflects and reinforces differences in social identity. It drives intense cultural divisions, which frequently overwhelm public policy debates and stymie efforts at pragmatic compromise.
There is nothing inevitable about this mediocrity and dysfunction. We can counteract partisan polarization. We can insist that our government effectively address soluble problems. We can roll back the institutional advantages and incentives for partisanship. And we can do all these things even as we continue to vigorously debate our cultural differences.
In 2013, a group of Republican and Democratic U.S. Senators forged a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have strengthened border security and created pathways for unauthorized immigrations to gain legal status. The bill passed in the Senate but died in the U.S. House of Representatives. Disputes over immigration policy have grown more intense since then, leading to two government shutdowns in 2018 and 2019. Partisans appear more determined to play to their base—to show that they will keep unauthorized immigrants out, or else will welcome them with few or no conditions—than to find a reasonable solution that strikes a balance between enforcement of U.S. immigration law and integrating immigrants into America’s economy and society, to the benefit of the United States.
The partisan debate over immigration policy is fierce and often acrimonious. It may give the impression that immigration reform is out of reach. But, if there were less partisan posturing, comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration policy would be entirely doable. Similarly, if national priorities took precedence over partisan priorities, the U.S. government could adopt effective policies to expand economic opportunities, make healthcare more affordable, improve education in elementary and secondary schools, curb climate change, rebuild American infrastructure, and invest robustly in R&D.
Partisanship not only reflects American society’s current divisions; it is also corroding our democracy from within, and has become deeply embedded in our institutions—even including the administration of our elections and our judiciary.
Electoral districts in most states are drawn by state legislatures, often to favor the political party in power, using big data and sophisticated mapping software to predict with great accuracy the voting preferences of individual households and fine-tune electoral district boundaries. After the 2010 census, Republican majorities in several state legislatures skewed redistricting to their advantage: Republicans in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia won by an average margin of 7 percent in the 2012 elections but gained a 76 percent advantage in House seats; in North Carolina, Republicans increased their share of U.S. House seats from six to ten out of 13 total over the course of three elections since redistricting; and in Wisconsin, Republicans won 48.6 percent of the state Assembly votes but gained more than 60 percent of its seats in 2012. In 2018, Republicans retained their supermajority in the Wisconsin State Assembly even as Democrats won every statewide office. Democrats also draw the electoral map in their favor when they can, as they have in Maryland and Illinois.
A partisan process to draw electoral districts heavily skews representation for American voters, allowing elected officials to pick and choose their own voters. Some states have established independent commissions to carry out redistricting, showing us that it is indeed possible to set aside this pernicious form of partisanship and make elections fair.
Elections are administered by each state’s Secretary of State—a partisan official. And each electoral cycle features efforts to change the rules on voter registration, voter identification, early voting, and more for partisan advantage. The United States is the only established democracy that is still struggling to settle the basic rules for voting.
Partisan influence on the judiciary is also a pernicious influence on American democracy. Nominations to the Federal bench are heavily and increasingly partisan. Most Federal appellate court judges appointed in recent years have served in political positions in government, taken part in an election campaign, or donated to political candidates. National leaders openly use their nominations and confirmations of judges to alter the political balance on Federal courts. Nominations to the Supreme Court have turned into full-bore political campaigns. More than $10 million was spent on ads supporting or opposing Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018.
In many states, partisan influence on the judiciary is even greater. Non-partisan elections for judges take place in 20 states and are often subject to partisan influence, while 11 states hold partisan elections for judges.
The selection or election of judges to advance partisan interests erodes impartial justice. Court rulings increasingly look like the outcomes of political battles rather than fair and balanced interpretations of law. Even when judges aim to adjudicate cases purely on legal merit, their impartiality is in doubt.
Partisan influence undermines the judiciary’s credibility and the legitimacy of court rulings on political issues, such as the separation of powers between Congress and the Executive. Many Americans see these rulings as statements of the court’s partisan preferences. Federal courts, perhaps aware of their questionable credibility, have been slow and seemingly reluctant to rule on separation of powers issues. The U.S. House of Representatives’ effort to enforce its subpoena of former White House Counsel Don McGahn is still winding its way through Federal courts after more than a year, and the case may get decided only after the November 2020 election.
Government for the Wealthy
The wealthiest Americans have grown ever more prosperous and the less well-off have fallen further behind. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. Indeed, the wealth gap widened during the Obama Administration: From 2007 to 2016, the median net worth of the richest quintile increased 13 percent, while the net worth of families in the lower tiers of wealth decreased. The 2017 tax cut further advantaged wealth over workers, benefitting commercial real estate developers, large corporations, and multi-millionaires, and reducing tax credits for low-income families.
The tax code provides built-in advantages for the wealthy: Capital gains are taxed at lower rates than wages; and taxes on wealth can be deferred and decreased by passing it on to the next generation.
Reduced enforcement of tax laws favors the wealthy as well. The top 10 percent of income earners evade taxes at substantially higher rates than the bottom half of the income distribution, and tax evasion rates are highest among the top 1 percent of income earners. About one in six dollars owed in Federal taxes is not paid. Increased funding for enforcement would generate a larger amount of tax revenue, but tax enforcement over the years has declined. Funding and employment for the Internal Revenue Service was cut about 12 percent and 15 percent, respectively, from 2008 to 2017, and the largest workforce cuts took place in the IRS’s enforcement division. Audit rates have fallen roughly in half over the past two decades.
Many wealthy individuals evade taxes by hiding their wealth in off-shore tax havens. The annual loss in tax revenue from this off-shore wealth is estimated at $32 billion. In addition, corporations avoid taxes legally by shifting where they report profits from the places that they actually earn money to places with low corporate tax rates. This tax avoidance costs the U.S. Treasury nearly $70 billion a year, close to 20 percent of corporate tax revenue.
Under-reporting and under-payment of U.S. taxes could be greatly reduced by allocating the taxable profits of multinational corporations in proportion to their sales in the United States. For example, if half of their sales take place in the United States, half of their profits would be subject to U.S. taxes. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) pushed such a plan in 2018 but backed off in the face of opposition from corporate interests and Republican lawmakers.
Corporations use their lobbyists in Washington to shape tax laws and regulations to push policy prescriptions that benefit their businesses at the public’s expense. More than $3.4 billion was spent on lobbying in 2018, mostly by corporate interests. That is up from $1.4 billion in 1998.
The lobbying industry has more than doubled in size over the past 20 years because it offers substantial return on investment. Since 2000, a large share of the increase in corporate value and profits resulted from corporate efforts to shape laws and regulations. Fortune 100 companies spent $2 billion altogether on lobbying over a four-year period and received $338 billion in Federal contracts and grants. Eight of these companies, which received nearly $17 billion in contracts, paid no income taxes in 2018.
The return on investment in lobbying dwarfs the typical yields of almost any other expense. For every dollar spent on lobbying, companies received an estimated $220 in tax benefits. Companies gain substantially higher returns by securing preferential treatment from government than they do through the ingenuity and hard work that capitalism is supposed to foster.
Elected Federal officials rely heavily on corporate contributions and wealthy individuals to fund their electoral campaigns. U.S. House candidates collect roughly one third of their campaign contributions from political action committees, most of which are sponsored by corporations, trade associations, and professional associations. Campaign contributions buy access to elected officials. As former Congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) openly admitted, “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
Elected officials rely even more on the support of wealthy individuals. Congressional candidates receive almost half of their campaign contributions as large donations from individuals. Corporate lobbyists can buy face time with Members of Congress; wealthy individual donors probably expect more in return for their campaign contributions.
Enormous sums are spent on U.S. election campaigns. Candidates raised an average of $3.9 million per U.S. House seat and $33 million per U.S. Senate seat in 2018. In total, more than $5.7 billion total was spent on congressional elections that year. More than $1 billion of that total came from outside spending groups, such as super PACs and “dark money” political non-profits. Spending on the U.S. presidential election topped $2.3 billion in 2016 and was even greater in the previous two election cycles. By contrast, in the United Kingdom’s 2019 general elections, total spending by all candidates was about £16 million (about $20 million).
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010 permitted corporations and other independent groups to spend unlimited sums in support of or opposition to political candidates, thereby triggering a huge injection of cash from outside sources, including wealthy individuals, into election campaigns. Election-related spending by independent groups ballooned to $4.5 billion over the decade since the Citizen United ruling. Wealthy donors gained substantial political clout. The ten biggest donors and their spouses pumped $1.2 billion into Federal elections over the past decade. Moreover, “dark money” groups, which kept their funding sources secret, exercised significant influence, injecting $963 million of outside spending into U.S. elections.
Overhauling Our Political System
Partisan polarization and government dysfunction may seem beyond repair. Certainly Americans seem mostly resigned to this predicament, with many having given up hope for genuine renewal of our political system. But Americans deserve, and can do, far better. We should insist that government foster economic opportunity, affordable healthcare, and quality education for all. We should expect our government to provide the leadership to curb climate change and build first-rate infrastructure. We deserve a government that delivers results worthy of a great power.
Our national predicament is like that of a family with a raging alcoholic. Most family members tiptoe around the alcoholic’s destructive impulses; some even praise the alcoholic’s self-restraint. A family that truly cares would stage an intervention, confront the alcoholic with the pain he has caused, and send him to rehab. Similarly, patriotic Americans should stop averting their eyes or making excuses and instead stand up to the enormity of our nation’s predicament.
The political situation in the United States today is radical. Political corruption, while often legal, is pervasive and brazen; government dysfunction is shrugged off; and partisan posturing is accepted as a substitute for competent government. Bold action is required to change this situation, but at the same time radical solutions are unnecessary. We don’t need to tear down our political system. We instead need to establish new conditions for normalcy.
If solutions to partisan polarization and government dysfunction sound far-fetched, it is only because they don’t fit into the narrow frame of current public debate—and because they would require substantial changes to power structures that serve the interests of and are defended by wealthy elites. Let’s discuss ways to overhaul our political system to eliminate institutional protections and incentives for partisanship, remove the pervasive and insidious influence of money on politics, and make government work for all Americans.
We should aim high. We should demand Federal elections run by independent, non-partisan authorities according to a clear and fixed set of rules that facilitates both universal suffrage of eligible voters and serious measures to ensure election security, so that elections will be credible to everyone, including defeated candidates and their supporters. We should insist on independent, non-partisan redistricting, so that electoral districts are no longer drawn to advantage one political party over another, and voters will choose politicians rather than the other way around. We should eliminate outside spending on electoral campaigns, particularly dark money. And we should institute public financing for election campaigns, so that candidates and elected officials are no longer beholden to moneyed interests.
The selection of judges should be genuinely non-partisan, so that justice will be impartial. Non-partisan selection of judges, even in a bitterly divided political system, can be straightforward: For each judicial vacancy, each party’s leaders would draw up a list of three candidates that they have confidence in and think will be acceptable to the other party. If Republican and Democratic leaders have to agree on judicial appointments, they are far more likely than they are now to select impartial judges.
At present, neither Republicans nor Democrats can lead the needed overhaul of our political system. Both parties are too vested in the current system to change it. Even if they were to press for institutional reforms, they would seek to shape those reforms for partisan advantage.
Elections often bring out the anger of Americans fed up with the political system and at time prompt debate on institutional reforms, but the debate thus far has been limited to measures that can improve our nation’s governance only at the margins, and elections tend, at best, to produce a new cast of leaders who perpetuate, if not aggravate, partisan polarization and government dysfunction. Comprehensive reform of American political institutions cannot occur through elections alone.
The needed overhaul of the U.S. government can only come at the initiative of citizens resolved to challenge the status quo, demand fundamental reforms, and press for constitutional amendments.
Our Constitution is a revered document. Some jurists seek to uphold its original meaning, as if a governance structure devised 232 years ago, however enlightened, were still fully applicable today. Others reinterpret the Constitution according to what they think makes sense today and, in so doing, put their personal judgments ahead of judicial precedent. If we were writing the Constitution from scratch today, what would it say? How would we ensure impartial justice, guarantee fair elections, and prevent state capture by wealthy elites? We should take a fresh look at our Constitution as a whole.
Americans need and deserve a government that works effectively for everyone. And Americans can make that happen.