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Abandoning the Middle: The Bush Tax Cuts and the Limits of Democratic Control

  • Jacob S. Hacker (a1) and Paul Pierson (a2)

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.Jacob S. Hacker is Peter Strauss Family Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University ( and author of The Divided Welfare State: The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States and The Road to Nowhere: The Genesis of President Clinton's Plan for Health Security. Paul Pierson is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley (, where he holds the Avice Saint Chair in Public Policy. He is the author of Politics in Time: History, Institutions and Social Analysis and Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment. The authors are grateful for the comments and suggestions of Akhil Amar, Daniel Carpenter, Peter Hall, Michael Heany, Jennifer Hochschild, Richard Kogan, Theodore Marmor, Andrew Martin, David Mayhew, Nolan McCarty, Bruce Nesmith, Peter Orszag, Eric Schickler, Theda Skocpol, Richard Vallely, Robert van Houweling, Joseph White, and three anonymous reviewers, as well as participants in a workshop at Harvard University sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. Rachel Goodman, Pearline Kyi, Joanne Lim, and Alan Schoenfeld provided able research assistance. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

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Perspectives on Politics
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