Donald Trump is merely a symptom, and perhaps the denouement, of a long-term trend that has seen wealthy elites and corporate interests take over and dominate government policy, marginalizing and disenfranchising the majority of average citizens.
The mid-term elections, however, could be a turning point that finally begins to reverse this outsized imbalance of power. Of course, elections are ultimately decided by voters and one major trend is working against Republican interests.
Over the past 21 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost an average 30 seats in the House, and an average four seats in the Senate; moreover, in only two of those has the President’s party gained seats in both houses. if the trend holds true, that would shift Congressional control to Democrats this year.
But issues like gun control in the wake of the Parkland High School mass shooting; womens’ rights arising out of the #MeToo movement; threats to LGBQT rights and the Trump administration’s virulent anti-immigration and anti-environmental policies are also galvanizing voters, leading to a potentially historic turnout.
In many respects, Trump is responsible for the historic shift, because his administration and the Republican-controlled Congress represent the worst excesses of three-decades of corporate and special interest-influence over government policies.
That trend is borne out be a new Princeton and Northwestern University study. Researchers examined nearly 1,800 U.S. policies enacted between 1981 and 2002 to determine who benefited– average Americans (50th percentile of income), the wealthy (90th percentile) or large special-interest groups.
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” state the report’s authors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page.
Although always evident, special interest influence began to accelerate following the 1960s, a period when liberal Democratic lawmakers advanced progressive social policies that had begun during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in the 1940s.
The conservative backlash began under President Nixon, but accelerated under President Reagan in the 1980s and Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush after that.
At the same time, the Republican Party began a concerted effort to extend its control of state governments.
That effort reached a high-water mark after the 2016 election when Republicans controlled 25 state governments (50 percent) compared to eight by Democrats (16 percent). The remaining 16 states (32 percent) are split between the two parties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Once Republicans gained controlled of statehouses, lawmakers engaged in gerrymandering, the political term for redrawing congressional districts in an effort to preserve one-party control of Congress. Democrats have also been accused of the same thing.
Public interest groups have begun to strike back at the local level. Several legal challenges have been filed recently in gerrymandered states.
In Common Cause v. Rucho, the public interest group sued North Carolina claiming partisan gerrymandering there violated the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and Article I, sections 2 and 4 (the Elections Clause) of the United States Constitution.
In a separate ruling this past January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that Pennsylvania’s 2011 U.S. congressional districting map violated the state Constitution. The court adopted a new Congressional map in time for the 2018 elections, according to the Public Interest Law Center.
Republican controlled state governments have also engaged in blatant attempts to suppress voter turnout. The efforts have been aimed largely at minority and likely Democratic voters.
“Since 2008, states across the country have passed measures to make it harder for Americans—particularly black people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities—to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Those efforts are also being met by legal challenges. Election officials in Georgia are facing multiple lawsuits over the high rejection rate of mail-in absentee ballots in one suburban county, according to published reports.
A group of students from a historically black university In Texas have also filed a lawsuit charging that Republican officials in a southeast Texas county are suppressing the voting rights of its black residents. Similar challenges to voter suppression are in the courts or on the ballot in Kansas, Florida and Michigan.
While the courts have traditionally meant to serve as a check on over-reaching government, corporations largely through the Republican Party have also extended their influence over the judiciary.
The Republican-controlled Senate blocked President Obama’s appointments, but has rushed through conservative federal judges and Supreme Court justices since Trump was elected in 2016.
In one of the clearest examples to politically influence the nation’s highest court, the Republican-controlled Senate refused for almost a year to consider President Obama’s moderate choice, Merrick Garland, for a vacant seat.
But it had no problem ramming through a conservative political ideologue, Brett Kavanaugh, in a matter of weeks to beat the mid-term elections, despite his flawed background, accusations of sexual abuse and widespread opposition from the public and legal scholars.
Corporations and business and professional associations have exerted their stranglehold on government by showering elected officials with campaign contributions and other perks. In addition, special interests and the wealthy donors spend tens of millions of dollars to influence voters through media campaigns.
The floodgates were opened by a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, which has become the closest thing yet to a permanent government, operating outside the will of voters.
The restraints on corporate influence came off in 2010 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court held that nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations had the right under the First Amendment to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Four years ago, in another controversial 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court abolished campaign-contribution limits to federal candidates by political action committees and political parties, again on First Amendment grounds.
The rulings have created a situation where billionaires like Robert Mercer, Sheldon Adelson and Charles Koch and David Koch on the right, and George Soros, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg on the left have been able to spend tens of millions of dollars to influence campaigns.
The Koch brothers, alone, have pledged to spend nearly $400 million this year on initiatives tied to the midterm election cycle, according to media reports.
“When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it,” the study found.
A key example is the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) over both Democrats and Republicans.
Although the NRA likes to brag it’s 5 million members strong, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 245 million adults, 18-and-over, who live in the United States and don’t belong. The NRA represents a paltry two-tenths of one percent of the population.
Yet, the organization holds sway over gun policy above and beyond their numbers by funneling tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns of federal and state officials. It spent more than $30 million on President Trump’s election, according to campaign records
Thus, even though the majority of Americans favor stricter gun controls and a ban on assault-style weapons, Congress has repeatedly refused to act, even in the face of mass shootings, which are growing in frequency.
The study notes that the politics of average citizens and special interest groups occasionally overlap, but calls the policies that result “merely a coincidence.”
Average Americans only benefit when a policy also serves the richest 10 percent, the study found. President Trump’s tax cut is a case in point. The policy overwhelmingly favors corporations and the richest Americans, with some incidental “trickle down” benefits for everyone else.
So far, Trump and Republican claim that the tax cut will boost the economy and pay for itself is unlikely, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
In an analysis of the tax cut, effectively a massive economic stimulus, the CBO concluded that it will have a only short-term effect on growth, while saddling the nation with massive deficits that could have a negative effect for years to come.
Meanwhile, the conservative Supreme Court has undercut unions, which traditionally have provided a countervailing balance to corporate special interests. Its most recent ruling came this past June, overturning a 40-year precedent in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 (AFSCME).
The court ruled, again by a 5-4 vote, that AFSCME violated “the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” In other words, unions could not collect so called “fair-share fees” for providing services to non-members as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
The decision overturned a 1977 Supreme Court decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that held public-sector unions could charge and collect fees from nonunion members to help defray the cost of collective bargaining and other activities. Fees spent on political activities had to be refunded.
Significantly, the lawsuits leading to the Janus decision were not funded by “organic, grassroots” challengers, but by a small group of foundations with ties to the largest and most powerful corporate lobbies, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute.
The so-called “Roberts court,” with its 5-4 Republican-appointed majority, has gone on “partisan excursions through the civil law,” when all five Republican appointees rule on cases without any Democratic appointee joining them, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse during the Kavanaugh hearing.
In 73 court cases since Bush appointee John Roberts became chief justice, the 5-4 majority has ruled in favor of big corporate or partisan influencers of the Republican Party 92 percent of the time, he noted.
“Every time a big corporation or partisan interest is involved, the big Republican interest wins… every damned time,” he noted. “They readily overturn precedent, toss out statutes passed by wide bipartisan margins and decide on broad constitutional issues that they need not reach.”
Republicans by no means have a lock on Congressional power. They’ve only held the majority in both houses since the 2010 midterms, two years into President Obama’s first term.
Now Democrats have a chance to break that monopoly two years into Trump’s first term and start addressing the imbalance of power that has tipped the government toward corporate special interests.
But it will be up to voters to make the change.