Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens spoke to UCLA Blueprint about the anti-democratic nature of the electoral college. In 2016, Donald Trump became the fifth candidate to be awarded the presidency despite having lost the popular vote. Gilens explained that the electoral college was originally created by the Founding Fathers to “give greater influence in choosing the president to slave states without actually allowing slaves to vote” as well as to “insulate the choice of the president from ordinary voters.” While Gilens considers a constitutional amendment eliminating the electoral college to be unlikely, he explained that the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” — an agreement among states to award all of their electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide — would make it possible to select the president by a majority vote.
Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens spoke to the Los Angeles Times about Americans’ shifting opinions about government-funded social safety nets. During the health and economic crisis spurred by COVID-19, a wide range of individuals and businesses have benefited from U.S. stimulus spending, and this could shift the national discourse about the role Americans want government to play in their lives. “COVID is such a potentially transformational experience,” Gilens said. While he cautioned that views may change once the economy improves, he noted, “If there is a broader reckoning with the failures of our government, then maybe that will extend to how we deal with inequality and poverty, and we’ll be entertaining something that looks a little more like a European welfare state.”
Public Policy Professor Martin Gilens co-authored a Medium article on the importance of electing a Democratic majority in the Senate in November and the value of “small-d democratizing” the legislative body. If Joe Biden is elected president, a Democratic majority would be necessary for quick passage of coronavirus relief legislation. However, “majority-party ‘control’ of the Senate is not enough to get things done,” argued Gilens and co-author Benjamin I. Page. Misuse of the filibuster and a bias toward small, rural states make the Senate “profoundly undemocratic” and “unresponsive to the American citizenry as a whole,” they wrote. The authors proposed eventually amending the Constitution to allocate more senators or more votes per senator to the more populous states. “Today’s social movement for justice and democracy may be precisely the sort of force that can, over time, lead to major institutional changes, including moving toward a more democratic Senate,” they concluded.
By Les Dunseith
It was a UCLA Luskin commencement ceremony unlike any other — delivered remotely by keynote speaker John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered across the nation and around the world amid a pandemic.
“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which remain available online and had been seen by a total of 1,265 new graduates and their loved ones as of midday Monday after the ceremony. The impact of the COVID-19 health crisis was obvious in the virtual setting, but Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the California Assembly, also took note of the political upheaval that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters worldwide to march for racial justice in recent weeks.
“My message to you today is also going to be somewhat different than usual. It has to be,” Pérez said. “It has to be different for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. For Sean Monterrosa and Manuel Ellis. And for Emmett Till and James Chaney and countless others — known and unknown — whose lives have been taken by the systemic racism that is the original sin and ongoing shame of our great nation.”
The new social welfare, planning and policy graduates earned their graduate degrees in extraordinary circumstances at a time that UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura views as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He congratulated the Class of 2020 and also noted the high expectations they carry into their futures.
“This celebration is partly about what you have accomplished, but it is also about what you have yet to do,” said Segura, thanking the new graduates “for all that we expect you to do with all that you’ve learned.”
The virtual platform incorporated several wrinkles that set the 2020 celebration apart from previous UCLA Luskin graduations. In addition to the recorded remarks by Segura and Pérez, video presentations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block were woven into the online presentation that was made available to all graduates.
Other aspects of the ceremony were able to be customized for each of the three departments that awarded degrees. So, Chair Laura S. Abrams spoke to the Social Welfare graduates, Chair Vinit Mukhija addressed the Urban Planning Class of 2020, and Chair Martin Gilens offered advice and congratulations to the new Public Policy alumni.
Instead of the past tradition in which names of individual graduates were read as they walked across the stage at Royce Hall to be handed a diploma, this year’s graduating students got a few moments of dedicated screen time to themselves. Each graduate’s name appeared on screen as part of the departmental ceremony, often accompanied by a photo and a personal message of thanks or inspiration provided by the graduating student as a text message or a video clip — or both. And an online “Kudobard” allowed family and friends to offer messages of congratulations to the Class of 2020.
The presentations by the student speakers were also unique to each department this year. All three spoke of the memorable circumstances that they and their classmates experienced while wrapping up their graduate degrees during such an extraordinary time in history.
“No one wanted this. No one wants to live in this type of world,” said Social Welfare speaker Akinyi Shapiro, who views her graduation as a time for both celebration and reflection. “Listen to those who are being attacked for nothing other than the color of their skin. Decide who we want to be as social workers, how we’re going to change our communities and commit to anti-oppressive practices that will make this country better.”
Amy Zhou noted that the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles took place just as the winter quarter was winding up at UCLA. “We had no idea that the last time my classmates and I would see each other at the end of the winter quarter would be the last time that we would see each other in person as a graduating class.”
Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform to include a series of video clips that showed her and her classmates pledging solidarity in their dedication to practice planning in a manner that will uplift their communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude, their voices in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”
As with any commencement, the virtual ceremony was also an opportunity for the graduating students to acknowledge their mentors — the faculty, friends and, especially, family members who have helped them along their journeys.
“Muchisimas gracias,” said Kassandra Hernandez of Public Policy during her commencement remarks. “Thank you, mom and dad, for all that you’ve given me — all the sacrifices you have made for me.”
Hernandez then addressed her peers. “You are ready to take on the world and cause some change because we all know that that’s why we came to Luskin — to cause change.”
In his keynote address, Pérez also spoke of change. He talked about his time as a leader in California’s government, pointing to accomplishments such as health care reform and the creation of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That financial reserve had grown to about $16 billion by the time of the pandemic, he noted, helping the current Legislature and governor lessen the economic damage from the COVID-19 downturn.
In Pérez’s view, making a meaningful difference to society requires not only a vision, but perseverance.
“As graduates of one of the nation’s premier schools for progressive planning and policy, you need to be among the leaders. Make ripples. Make waves,” he said. “Push yourself. Push the system. And when you think you’ve pushed enough, take a step, take a pause, and then push some more.”
A New York Times editorial on inequalities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and the urgency of building a more resilient nation cited research by Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens on the distribution of political power. “This nation was ailing long before the coronavirus reached its shores,” the editorial stated, noting that the fragility of U.S. society made it particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. Policies designed not in the common interest but to protect the wealthy are at the root of this reality, the editorial argued. It cited research from Gilens and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University showing that between 1981 and 2002, policies supported by at least 80% of affluent voters passed into law about 45% of the time, while policies opposed by at least 80% of those voters passed into law just 18% of the time. The views of poor and middle-class voters had little influence, the study found.
Public Policy Professor Martin Gilens was featured in a New York Times column on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ decision to drop out of the presidential race. The column asserted that the Democratic Party is made up of 60% centrist “establishment” voters, 20% progressive leftists and 20% neoliberals. Gilens argued that “Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other progressive Democrats are fully justified in believing many of the policies they endorse are opposed by a Democratic Party establishment beholden to moneyed interests.” He added, “The Democratic Party aligns itself rhetorically with the middle class, but when push comes to shove, its policies reflect the influence of the well-off.” Gilens and co-author Benjamin Page describe what they believe are the consequences of a Democratic Party dominated by the affluent in their book “Democracy in America: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It.”
An excerpt from Public Policy Professor Martin Gilens’ book “Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It” was featured on the Chicago Blog. In the book, Gilens and co-author Benjamin Page examine trends in voter turnout and recommend reforms to facilitate voting. Gilens outlines various policy recommendations to increase voter turnout, including universal, government-administered registration; making Election Day a holiday; more polling places and voter machines; and allowing same-day registration. However, he points out that reforms must also aim to decrease biases in participation. “When it comes to our central objective — making government policy more responsive to average citizens — the number of Americans participating in politics is actually less important than the representativeness of those who participate,” Gilens writes. “We want elections to be decided by an ‘unbiased sample’ of Americans, not by a sample that is biased toward the affluent or any other particular group.”
As Super Tuesday drew to a close after 72 hours of campaign twists and turns, Public Policy students and faculty flocked to a watch party at the Luskin School for pizza and political talk. The contest for the Democratic presidential nomination as a two-man race came into focus as returns came in from across the country. In addition to weighing the merits of Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, students talked about state and local races and the new voting centers rolled out by Los Angeles County for the March 3 primary. Many in the room wore “I Voted” stickers after casting their ballots at Ackerman Union. The crowd also included half a dozen international students who were fascinated by the political process unfolding before them. Professors Martin Gilens and Mark Peterson provided context and commentary as hosts of the event. They were joined by Associate Professor Wesley Yin and Visiting Professor Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic nominee. Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, shared their own unique perspectives with students at the watch party.
View more photos on Flickr.
An Atlantic article about Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg’s financial situation quotes Public Policy Professor Martin Gilens on the disproportionate impact of wealth on government policy. The article explains that Bloomberg’s self-financed campaign has boosted his ability to compete against other candidates who are unable to adopt the same strategy. Bloomberg is worth an estimated $64 billion, which is 20 times as much as Donald Trump is worth, and his presidential campaign has already poured more than $400 million into advertisements, the article noted. A study co-authored by Gilens found that business lobbies and the wealthy “have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” While money alone is not enough to win the race, the article expressed concern that Bloomberg’s wealth has warped the political system to become plutocratic and elitist.
A New York Times article discussing the dangers of private campaign funding cited Public Policy Professor Martin Gilens’ research on the disproportionate influence of wealthy Americans in politics. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case allowed corporations to spend freely on electioneering, making it easier for wealthy individuals and corporations to translate their economic power into political power. The article cited a dinner party last year at the Trump International Hotel, where wealthy donors spoke to President Trump about their corporate interests. They included the owner of a steel-making company who urged the president to let truck drivers work longer hours, even though studies show that driver fatigue is a frequent factor in fatal crashes. In their 2017 book “Democracy in America?,” Gilens and co-author Benjamin Page illustrate the disproportionate influence that the wealthiest Americans exercise in politics. According to Gilens, wealthy Americans are particularly successful in blocking even broadly popular policies they don’t like.