The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts represent dramatic legislative
breakthroughs. Taken together, they have fundamentally reshaped the
nation's fiscal landscape. In view of the voluminous and largely
sanguine literature on American democratic responsiveness, one might
assume that this policy turnaround was broadly consistent with
voters' priorities. In this article, we show that—in
contradiction to this prevailing view, as well as the claims of Larry
Bartels in this issue—the substance of the tax cuts was in fact
sharply at odds with public preferences. Tax policy was pulled radically
off center, we argue, by the intersection of two forces: (1) the
increasing incentives of political elites to cater to their partisan and
ideological “base”; and (2) the increasing capacity of
politicians who abandon the middle to escape political retribution. In
accounting for these centrifugal forces, we stress, as others have,
increasing partisanship and polarization, as well as the growing
sophistication of political message-control. Yet we also emphasize a
pivotal factor that is too often overlooked: the deliberate crafting of
policy to distort public perceptions, set the future political agenda, and
minimize the likelihood of voter backlash. By showing how politicians can
engineer policy shifts that are at odds with majority public preferences,
we hope to provoke a broader discussion of voters' capacity to
protect their interests in America's representative democracy.
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