Abandoning the Middle: The Revealing Case of the Bush Tax Cuts


Jacob S. Hacker, Paul Pierson

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Hacker, Jacob S., Paul Pierson (2005) “Abandoning the Middle: The Revealing Case of the Bush Tax Cuts.” Perspectives on Politics 3(1): 33-53. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1537592705050048
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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