The Elite Capture Of Politics

Over the past month, Donald Trump provided a clue to his governing approach by nominating members of his cabinet. It is now clear that Trump has executed the biggest bait and switch in American political history. Campaigning as a candidate who would stand up for and improve the lives of the working class, and receiving over 40% support from union households, Trump's cabinet nominees and the outlines of his economic policy suggest that he is doing the exact opposite. These actions, however deceitful for his voters and damaging for the country, are part of a broader process that has been going on since the 1980s where elite interests have come to dominate policy formation.

The elite capture of politics is when economic and business interests dominate the staffing of key government agencies and create policies that directly benefit their firms and financial interests at the expense of everyone else. Government policy is created and used to increase the wealth of the elite, to the detriment of the average person and the U.S. economy as whole.

The ability of a small elite to capture the political process has been made possible by the growth in income inequality since 1980, which led to a sharp rise in the wealth owned by the richest 1%. The rise in economic power was used to increase the political power of the elite by investing in politicians through campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, further increasing the elite's wealth and economic power, creating a feedback loop. American democracy has been replaced with an oligarchic plutocracy--rule by the rich.

This process is baldly apparent in not only Trump himself, but also his cabinet nominees, who are part of a class of well connected, well capitalized economic and political elites. Instead of "draining the swamp" in Washington, Trump is turning on the fire hose to flood it.

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon, was nominated to be Secretary of State. Although not specifically an economic posting, Tillerson has business connections to Russia and Vladimir Putin, putting into question his ability to lay aside his own financial interests in favor of those of the nation. As the U.S.'s chief diplomat, more than economic policy is at stake -- global stability might be in jeopardy.

Despite pillorying Goldman Sachs during his campaign, Trump appointed three individuals who worked for the firm at the highest levels. Steven Mnuchin, a veteran of the financial industry who worked for Goldman Sachs for 15 years, has been nominated as Secretary of the Treasury. Mnuchin was also Trump's largest campaign fundraiser. Gary Cohn, who was with Goldman Sachs for 16 years, has been tapped to direct the National Economic Council, a position that does not require confirmation. And Steve Bannon, who is best known as the founder of far-right opinion site Breitbart News, has been appointed Trump's senior counselor and chief strategist.

This Wall Street-Washington corridor is not new. Frequently employees of financial firms serve in government posts to chisel away at regulations, and are then hired back to the private sector to help firms escape whatever regulations remain.

Outside of Goldman Sachs, former banker Wilbur Ross has been nominated as Secretary of Commerce. Ross and Trump have a long history, and he was a supporter of Trump's campaign. But Ross is no stranger to politics--he also advised Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder is a career executive from the fast food industry who already seems to be using his nomination to lay the groundwork for eliminating or weakening laws and policies that inhibit his wealth acquisition. He is opposed to minimum wage increases, despite overwhelming public support and little evidence that they cause job loss; increased access to overtime pay; and stronger workplace safety regulations.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been nominated to head the Energy Department. In addition to being a climate change skeptic and having ties to the oil and gas industry, Perry advocated eliminating the agency he has been tapped to lead.

This list of billionaires and multi-millionaires could go on. But taking a step back and looking at these selections as a whole, they demonstrate a radically rightward shift in economic policy -- tax cuts for the wealthy, corporate tax cuts, deregulation of financial markets, stripping away environmental protections, and a convoluted infrastructure plan that seems designed to enrich selected firms without actually addressing critical infrastructure needs.

All of these policies, which have been implemented in one form or another since 1980, have a impressive track record of slowing employment creation and wage growth, exacerbating income inequality, and increasing profit growth. If these nominees are confirmed, Trump and his cabinet will be able to continue to annually redistribute $1 trillion from the middle class to the wealthiest 1%.

Although Trump's policies represent an intensification of neoliberal and supply-side economic dogma, his nominees' backgrounds should not be entirely surprising. Every president from Reagan on had at least one former employee of a major financial firm serve as their Treasury Secretary, to say nothing of other cabinet posts. But the elite capture of politics runs much deeper than these highly visible examples. For decades, business and elite interests have exerted substantially greater impact on key policy formation and decisions relative to those those of the average person.

Even if these nominees are not confirmed, the types of people Trump is considering gives us a clear picture of his governance vision and shows the contempt he holds for those who elected him. The sad truth is that that American democracy has been captured by elite interests, creating an oligarchic plutocracy where the wealthiest determine who will run for office and what they do while in office. This has been true whether a Republican or Democratic administration in power--Hillary Clinton was no stranger to Wall Street. The massive gains in wealth by the top 1% led to increased investment in politicians, causing them to become not only friendly to elite interests, but also wholehearted supporters.

Breaking this cycle will require a radical restructuring of political and economic institutions. Trump and his cabinet nominees will not champion this process--they will actively take advantage of it, making themselves and their firms better off at everyone else's expense.