It is a confounding moment in American political history. On the one hand, evidence of democratic possibilities is undeniable. In 2008, millions of Americans helped catapult a man of half-African descent into the White House long before observers thought the nation was “ready.” Democratic movements have won major victories in recent decades, spreading civil rights, improving the status of women and ending unpopular wars. This is the continuation of a trend with deep roots in American history, reaching back at least to the Jacksonian era, of extending the equality principle into American culture at large.
On the other hand, democracy appears chronically dysfunctional when it comes to policies that impinge on the rich. Despite polls consistently showing that large majorities favor increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, policy has been moving for decades in the opposite direction. Reduced taxes on the ultra-rich and the corporations and banks they dominate have shifted fiscal burdens downward even as they have strained the government’s capacity to maintain infrastructure, provide relief to children and the poor, and assist the elderly.