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Hacker and Pierson: ‘Let Them Eat Tweets’

July 20, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Jacob S. Hacker (Yale University), Paul Pierson (University of California, Berkeley)


This is not a book about Donald Trump.

Instead, it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency.

That shift is the rise of plutocracy – government of, by, and for the rich.

Chapter 1 – The Conservative Dilemma

Plutocratic populism is rather new; the political dilemma that gives rise to it is very old. What happens when an economic system that concentrates wealth in the hands of the few coexists with a political system that gives the ballot to the many?

Whenever economic elites have grossly disproportionate power and come to see their economic interests as opposed to those of ordinary citizens, they are likely to promote social divisions. They are also likely to come to fear a fair democratic process in which those citizens have significant clout. These elite responses to extreme inequality enter into politics mainly through conservative parties, which must navigate the tension between unequal influence and democratic competition. The Conservative Dilemma is not a problem of a particular moment. It is a problem inherent in democratic politics in contexts of extreme inequality.

Chapter 2 – Republicans Embrace Plutocracy

Extreme inequality creates three fundamental threats to healthy democratic politics: divergent elite interests, disproportionate elite power, and diminished elite commitment to democracy itself.

Chapter 3 – Organizing through Outrage

If finding groups Republicans could rely on to navigate the Conservative Dilemma took time, it was time well spent. For the groups that aligned with the GOP proved unusually skilled at creating durable shared identities that motivated citizens, and then getting those citizens to show up, not just on election day, but whenever big shows of strength were needed. These were groups, in short, that could rally their troops, creating sharp lines between friend and foe and instilling a sense of threat. And what best rallied those troops, they discovered, was outrage.

Chapter 4 – Identity and Plutocracy

If Republicans had weakened their embrace of plutocracy, they would have adopted economic priorities closer to those of less affluent GOP voters and diminished their reliance on divisive appeals. And if they had moderated their economic stances and softened their cultural appeals, they could have brought more nonwhite voters into the fold. They did neither – that they cultivated voter identities that were so intense, exclusive, and divisive; that they ramped up white backlash even as American society as a whole was becoming more tolerant – wasn’t because voters gave them no other options. Ultimately, it was because they chose plutocrats over everyone else.

Chapter 5 – A Very Civil War

In the new GOP, public officials either bent their knee to Trump, retired from the scene, or were demolished.

Yet if the past few years have witnessed a Republican civil war, it has been a very civil war, in which the side allegedly losing has made gains it could have scarcely contemplated just a few years before. Among the biggest winners were the right-wing plutocrats who had been at the heart of the establishment. When Trump took power, he handed much of the power to people loyal to the plutocrats, or to the plutocrats themselves. They brought their long-standing policy ambitions into the federal government and carried them out with a vengeance.

The plutocrats have gotten huge tax cuts. They have reaped the benefits of an unprecedented attack on regulations that police big corporations and protect consumers, workers, and the environment. And they have seen the nation’s powerful courts tilt even further in favor of elite economic interests.

Chapter 6 – Tyranny of the (Wealthy and Extreme) Minority

Although Republicans decisively lost the House of Representatives in 2018, they did not turn to moderation.

They recognized the widening gap between their priorities and those of the broader electorate. But they saw this growing divergence not as a problem with their priorities, but as a problem with their strategies. To these intense and focused factions, electoral and policy setbacks did not mean that Republicans had to attract wider support. They meant Republicans had to figure out how to win without it.


Moderation from economic elites is most likely to emerge in response to growing pressure from below.

Where, exactly, will that pressure come from?

(No spoiler here.)



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Many of us who have been working so hard and so long on single payer reform – an improved Medicare for All – have had difficulty in understanding why an obviously vastly superior health care financing model has not been enacted and implemented long before now. Such a system would benefit all of us, although the very wealthy would pay more taxes (but not enough to be detectable without a careful perusal of their tax statements). With polling demonstrating popular support and with a model that should have strong appeal for almost everyone, it seems that it should have been put in place long ago.

In “Let Them Eat Tweets,” Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain why that has not occurred. Simply, the very wealthy control the government; that is, we have a plutocracy. The plutocrats are opposed to the government taxation and regulation that would be required to establish a universal, equitable, publicly-administered and publicly-financed health care system; so we don’t have it.

The Constitution was designed to prevent a small group from gaining control of the government, yet it has happened even though the vast majority of U.S. citizens are worse off for it. The authors explain how this came to be. They do not attribute it to Donald Trump – its onset was decades before Trump entered the scene – but they do use the Trump administration to illustrate the adverse consequences of a plutocracy, including how only a relatively few individuals can have such great control over our government. As an example, at a time we desperately need a redistribution to partially ameliorate the injustices of profound income and wealth inequality, instead we got a massive tax reduction for the plutocrats and an increase in government deficit spending for the rest of us and our progeny, thus worsening the inequality.

If there is good news here, it is that “moderation from economic elites is most likely to emerge in response to growing pressure from below.” Even though our democracy has suffered damage under the plutocrats (details are in the book) we do still have a democracy that we can repair and use to align the interests of the plutocrats with the will of the people. Any keen observer of our politics will realize how difficult that will be, but we can do it.

Maybe we could start with single payer Medicare for All.

PNHP does not endorse any political party nor any candidate for office.

Stay informed! Visit www.pnhp.org/qotd to sign up for daily email updates.

About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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