Sean McElwee

Americans are divided and polarized — but large majorities want to curb corporate influence in government

After the most turbulent election cycle in American history, Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by a comfortable margin in both the Electoral College and popular vote. With political polarization at an all-time high, the question of how President-elect Biden plans to unite a deeply divided country is a highly pertinent one. Fortunately for Biden, the Cabinet composition process provides him with an enormous opportunity to maintain the coalition that put him into the White House while expanding his base of support in the process.

But contrary to Beltway wisdom, this will not be achieved by giving alumni of Wall Street and the corporate world positions of influence in his administration. While Americans may be divided on many issues, curbing the political power of corporate actors is something that unifies voters across party lines. Eschewing former corporate lobbyists and executives in favor of qualified civil servants committed to advancing the interests of working people for administrative posts isn't just the right thing for Biden to do. It's good politics, and we have the data to prove it.

Earlier this year, Data for Progress released polling that surveyed voters across party lines to find out what Americans wanted to see in the next administration. Fifty-nine percent of voters surveyed believed that corporate lobbyists wield too much influence in government policy-making. When asked about the influence of billionaires, big banks and Wall Street, respondents overwhelmingly agreed these groups hold too much influence in government affairs, by margins of 62, 56 and 52 percent, respectively. On the other hand, 60 percent of respondents indicated they believed working-class people hold too little influence in government, while just 8 percent said they believed otherwise.

It's no secret that American institutions are facing a crisis of legitimacy. Public trust in government continues to erode, with the revolving door between public office and the private sector serving as a major focal point in Americans' declining confidence in their elected officials. Polling by Data for Progress conducted in October revealed that Americans across party lines are intimately concerned with the impact that the revolving door between high office and industry has on policy-making.

A wide 56 percent of voters across party lines agreed that putting alumni of the corporate world in the Biden administration would keep the revolving door between Washington and K Street open, to the detriment of working families. By contrast, only 23 percent of voters indicated that corporate lobbyists and executives bring invaluable insight to government and should be chosen by the president-elect for roles in his administration. Few would be surprised that 63 percent of Democrats surveyed agreed that Biden should eschew the appointment of alumni of the corporate world to positions in his administration. Of more interest, however, is that 54 percent of Republicans surveyed agreed that Biden should avoid appointing former corporate lobbyists and executives, with only 22 percent indicating otherwise.

It's clear, then, that while Biden will have his work cut out for him if he wants to win the support of Republican voters, working to close the revolving door with his Cabinet picks is far more likely to accomplish this than choosing business magnates for key roles. Data for Progress polling also found that proposals to close the revolving door similarly proved widely popular, with a massive 76 percent of voters across party lines indicating concern about the prospect of an administration official who received a bailout in the private sector being tasked with overseeing that same industry in an official capacity.

Polling conducted by Data for Progress over the past several weeks found that voters across party lines see federal government experience and policy expertise, not backgrounds in the corporate world, as attributes they value in potential appointees. Sixty-seven percent of respondents across party lines indicated that Biden should prioritize policy experts with academic backgrounds when choosing positions in his administration. The prospect of appointing individuals with experience in the federal government advocating for the public good was even more popular, with 71 percent of all respondents — and even 61 percent of Republicans — agreeing such people should be prioritized.

When asked the same about potential nominees with backgrounds as lobbyists for major corporations and industries, though, respondents were firmly opposed. Sixty percent of respondents said they disagreed with the proposition that potential nominees with backgrounds as corporate lobbyists should be prioritized in the new administration. While a large majority of respondents, 67 percent, agreed that backgrounds in nonprofits that advocate for the public good is a plus for potential nominees, only 31 percent said the same about backgrounds in Wall Street.

Democrats are not going to maintain the coalition they built in the 2020 election, let alone expand it, by appointing former corporate lobbyists and executives to key posts. Americans are divided on many things, but on the issue of corporate influence in government public opinion is clear, whatever elites in Washington may say: Biden should look to qualified public servants and experts, not titans of the corporate world, for positions in his administration.

How a Rahm Emanuel appointment would hurt Biden and the Democrats

The skies above Washington D.C. are restricted airspace for low-flying aircraft, with one major exception. The inception of a new presidential administration fills the air with trial balloons, as job seekers and administration officials test the public reaction to possible appointments.

One trial balloon has progressives around the country reaching for balloon-popping pins: that of Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's White House Chief of Staff and the ex-mayor of Chicago. Axios increased the speculation this weekend when it reported that the president-elect is "strongly considering" Emanuel, who has long battled the left on policies that range from health care to policing, for Secretary of Transportation. But our analysis shows that an appointment for the notoriously abrasive Emanuel should be of even more concern to the new administration and the Democratic Party than it is to the left.

Research at Data for Progress, as well as survey data from other sources, places Emanuel on the wrong side of many critical issues that Democratic voters (and, in many cases, the electorate as a whole) care deeply about. It would be a deeply divisive and unpopular choice, with serious implications for the administration's political and policy future.

As a side note, Emanuel is well-known for his harsh language. As White House Chief of Staff, Emanuel told progressives that they were "f**king retards" for mounting primaries against conservative Democrats. That language insults the Democratic base, which holds strong progressive views. We condemn his choice of words. Oh, we don't mean the "f-bombs," although the abuse reflects a politically untenable attitude toward the progressives that make up the party's base. The ableist language reflects a harmful attitude toward the disability community—an attitude that would later be reflected in his actions as mayor of Chicago.

More broadly, our review shows that Emanuel's record stands in stark contrast to the values and opinions of the American electorate.

Policing and Justice

Let's start with the case that represents Emanuel's worst moment in public life: The murder of Lacquan McDonald, a 14-year-old Black child. That video proved that police lied about the killing. When forced to choose between a murdered Black child and the cop who killed him, Rahm directed city attorneys to suppress video evidence. The video was only released after Rahm was safely re-elected mayor. He went on to serve his second term. After its release, the police officer began serving a term, too—a prison term for second-degree murder.

Chicago Police tactics under Emanuel were like Trump's, and were arguably much worse. Under Emanuel, Chicago police also operated a secretive, so-called "black site" that foreshadowed the Trump Administration's tactics against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

As journalist Spencer Ackerman reported in 2015, practices at a "nondescript warehouse on Chicago's west side" allegedly included beatings, shackling for prolonged periods, denying attorneys access to their clients, detaining arrestees without recording them in official databases. Ackerman reports that at least one man was found unresponsive in an "interview room" there and later died.

Emanuel's record on policing runs strongly against voter opinion. Our polling shows that 73 percent of likely voters, including two-thirds (67 percent) of Republicans, believe that "the public has a right to know which police officers in the community have records of excessive force, sexual assault, racism, or dishonesty."

More than two-thirds (69 percent) of likely voters, including 63 percent of Republicans, also support "allowing people to ... use public records requests to learn whether police officers in the community have records of excessive force, sexual assault, racism, or dishonesty." Emanuel's record on policing clashes sharply with this public consensus on police violence.

Public Schools

Voters support public schools and schoolteachers. A February 2020 poll by the National School Boards Action Center (NSBAC) found that 73 percent of voters were concerned about inadequate funding and resources for public education and 64 percent thought that funding for public schools should be increased. Only 6 percent thought their funding should be decreased.

Rahm Emanuel's record as mayor runs sharply against public opinion. Chicago shuttered 50 schools during his tenure. When Emanuel closed those schools, the lives of nearly 12,000 schoolchildren—most of whom were Black or Brown—were disrupted. The resulting "school deserts" deprived urban neighborhoods of public institutions that had been part of the community for generations.

Emanuel promised affected communities that they would have a voice in determining how the abandoned buildings would be used. But, as Kalyn Belsha reports,

… four years later, two-thirds of the buildings are still vacant. There are no common standards for community involvement in determining their reuse. And aldermen, who until recently oversaw the process, have not held public meetings to discuss the future of about half of the schools …

In 2017, 28 vacant schools were put on the market for sale. Despite the public's support for public education, some of the buildings were purchased by private schools. Jesse Sharkey, an official with the Chicago Teachers' Union, told the Chicago Reporter that this move undermines public institutions. "I think it's extremely problematic to close public schools and turn buildings over to essentially what are competitors to the public school system," said Sharkey.

Other buildings remained empty, as boarded-up reminders of the Emanuel Administration's indifference to the future of these communities. The question remains: Why were these particular schools targeted? Chicago activist Eve Ewing addresses that question in a Guardian op-ed entitled, "What led Chicago to shutter dozens of majority-black schools? Racism."

Emanuel said the schools were underperforming. But, as Ewing writes, "if the schools were so terrible, why did people (in the Black community) fight for them so adamantly? Why do people care so much about schools that the world has deemed to be 'failing'"?

Racial Justice in Education

Emanuel's school closures are closely linked to the issue of racial injustice in education. Voters understand that the US educational system is plagued by institutional racism. As might be expected, Black voters are especially aware of this problem. The Lowell Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts conducted a national poll in September 2020 which found that only one-third (34 percent) of Americans said they believe the educational playing field is equal. 81 percent of Black respondents said they see education as unequal.

Black voters are an essential part of the Democratic voting bloc, without whom most Democratic electoral victories would become impossible. Only one Black voter in ten (10 percent) percent said their children have the same opportunity as white children.

Emanuel's educational record will not sit well with voters. As Kalyn Belsha also reports:

A new study released by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago that looked at school closures and turnarounds between 2000 and 2013 found that race, not simply enrollment or academic performance, was a recurring factor. Schools that were predominantly black and located within six miles of the city's center, where there is more redevelopment potential, were more likely to be turned around or closed … Although the school district chose "race-neutral" metrics to justify the restructurings, the report argues that they interacted with "institutionalized racial inequities" and had outcomes that disproportionately affected black students.

The report concluded:

Legacies of racism—from the broader interactive effects between de jure and de facto residential segregation and labor market discrimination to prior CPS plans and practices like the fact that the district often built new schools rather than redraw boundaries that would put black and white students in the same schools—shape contemporary capital investment policies in Chicago.

You don't have to be racist to perpetuate a legacy of segregation. All you need to do is pretend it doesn't exist.

Corporations, Banks, and Real Estate Interests

As the report cited above suggests, Emanuel has frequently given preference to corporate, financial, and real estate interests.

Data for Progress research shows that voters believe the economic order is rigged against them. A majority of those we polled agreed with statements that included:

  • The economic system favors the wealthy and powerful
  • The wealthy take advantage of workers
  • People are poor because the economic system is unfair
  • Business executives use their power to keep wages low

Emanuel's record is closely tied to corporate and financial interests in real estate, banking, and other bulwarks of the current financial system. He was highly successful raising money from these sectors, transforming the Democratic Party in the process.

After serving in the Clinton Administration, Emanuel himself became Managing Director of a Chicago investment bank, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, a banking corporation that specializes in commercial real estate, despite having no previous banking experience. That gig netted him more than $18 million in just two and a half years.

His mayoralty was closely linked to these interests as well. When Emanuel assumed office, he expanded an finalized a pre-existing deal to privatize the city's parking meters. That contract transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in income from the city to private corporations. It also robbed Chicago voters of the ability to control parking law—so much so that the corporations overruled the city and said it could not suspend alternate side of the street parking for a religious holiday.

Rahm claimed the city was "stuck with the contract" when he took office. That wasn't true. His actions locked the deal in place for more than 70 years. He also claimed he "reformed" the parking meter deal—but, again, it wasn't true. He expanded it, giving the corporate world even more of a chance to earn back billions on its $1.2 billion investment—funds that would otherwise have gone to the city and its people.

Money in Politics

These trends reflect a key characteristic of Rahm Emanuel's career: his first and foremost claim to fame has been fundraising. He is an expert at extracting large amounts of money from wealthy and powerful interests—money that has shifted the Democratic Party sharply to the right.

This, too, runs directly against public opinion. As Data for Progress reports,

… recent studies found that more than 75% of Americans want to limit campaign spending, and a majority of Americans of all political stripes support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. That number included 66% of Republican voters.

Climate Change and the Environment

Our polling shows that voters support spending trillions of dollars to address climate change, believe as move to 100 percent clean energy is worth the cost, and support federal aid for communities – such as poor, Black, and Brown communities – that have been disproportionately affected by climate change, pollution, and the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, as Curtis Black explains in The Intercept, Emanuel shut down Chicago's Department of the Environment as an austerity measure. He said every department would prioritize the environment, but the results showed he lied. Writes Black:

Chicago's recycling rate has remained abysmally low. In February, an analysis by the Better Government Association and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University revealed that the city now has half the number of environmental inspectors that it had eight years ago, and the number of annual inspections, not surprisingly, also fell by more than half.

Black quotes researchers BGA and Medill as saying, "Hazardous material inspections fell by more than 90 percent between 2010 and 2018; air quality inspections plunged almost 70 percent; and solid waste inspections dropped by more than 60 percent."

The rate of environmental citations issued during Emanuel's administration fell to less than one-third of what it had been during the previous seven years.

Public Health Care

A recent Reuters poll found that 64% of Americans support Medicare-for-All, with only with only one in four voters (26 percent) opposing. While other polls have resulted in slightly different numbers, voters consistently support an expanded role for government in health care.

Emanuel himself confessed, however, that he "begged" President Obama not to pursue the Affordable Care Act—which, for all its flaws, has aided millions. As mayor, he moved to close mental health clinics in Chicago. Although the City Council headed off many of his planned closings, he was able to push many others through.

This move harmed many members of Chicago's disabled community. The Collaborative for Community Wellness, a local group, later found that Chicago's Southwest Side had 0.17 licensed mental health clinicians per 1,000 residents—a tiny fraction of the 4.45 per 1,000 available in the upper-class Near North Side.

Unions

Voters support unions. In September, Gallup reported that public support for organized labor remained at its highest point in nearly two decades, with two-thirds of voters (65 percent) saying they "approved" of unions.

Rahm Emanuel is not one of those voters. During negotiations over the auto bailout, Rahm had this to say: "F**k the UAW!" He was talking about the United Auto Workers. As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel unilaterally cancelled a negotiated raise for the city's teachers, triggering its first strike in 25 years. He didn't even pick up the phone and call the union president before making his move.

The result was Chicago's first teachers' strike in a quarter century.

Deficit Spending

Data for Progress studied the electorate's views on deficit spending. In that research, likely voters were given pro- and anti-deficit messaging. The anti-deficit-spending message compared the government's finances to a household's need to balance its books. This was the pro-deficit-spending message:

To put our financial house in order, we need to invest money in the American people. In the short term, this may mean increasing the debt but in the long term these investments will pay for themselves by growing the economy and creating jobs.

We found that, among all likely voters, 54 percent were persuaded by the pro-deficit messaging (only 35 percent agreed with the anti-deficit austerity message saying the government should balance its books). Two-thirds of self-identified Democrats preferred the pro-deficit message. A plurality (49 percent) of likely voters that self-identify as Republicans also preferred the pro-deficit message, while only 45 percent of self-identified Republicans supported the austerity message).

Emanuel's record as an austerity-minded "budget hawk" isn't limited to his tenure as mayor. His federal record also shows a predictable chumminess toward the wholesale budget-slashing advocated by billionaires like the late Peter G. Peterson. One example: In 2010, at the height of an economic crisis that was harming tens of millions of Americans, people urgently needed the federal government's help to survive the recession—a recession caused by Wall Street.

Instead of stepping up services to beleaguered working people—or providing the kinds of bailouts his Wall Street allies received—Emanuel ordered federal agencies to enact 5 percent budget cuts across the board. Voters will not be happy with that record, either.

Conclusion

This, then, is the career of Rahm Emanuel. His life and work stand against the values most voters embrace. He must not serve in the new administration. We say that, not as members of the left (although we are), but as analysts who see a record that is likely to do serious political harm to the Biden administration. More importantly, the policies he's likely to promote would also do serious harm to the nation itself.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is Senior Advisor for Health and Economic Justice at Social Security Works and the host of The Zero Hour with RJ Eskow on Free Speech TV. Follow him on Twitter: @rjeskow

Sean McElwee is a co-founder of Data for Progress. Follow him on Twitter: @SeanMcElwee

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