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Unhappy With Politics? Look In The Mirror, UNLV Professor Contends

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Kathy Willens/AP

Workers walk on a giant presidential election map of the U.S. made of ice in the skating rink at Rockefeller Center in 2004.

People upset about the direction of the nation should be looking in the mirror instead of blaming politicians or the media, a UNLV professor contends in a new book.

In “The Masses Are the Ruling Classes,” Professor William Epstein says the United States’ open society and near-universal suffrage have led to policies that are the product of mass consent and not imposed by a remote and out of control government.

“We export blame on a convenient scapegoat, but indeed the government is very reflective and extremely sensitive to popular tastes,” said Epstein, who is part of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs’ school of social work. “A skilled politician is deeply embedded in the preferences of his local constituents.”

And those preferences have long been the idea of personal responsibility.  

“We’ve always been a country that relies on personal responsibility over prudent in investment in populations," Epstein said.

He said most people not only vote against their economic self-interest but improving their own economic interest is not the main driver. For example, he said people who voted for Donald Trump as president because they felt a businessman would help create better jobs often vote against investment in education to help them get those jobs. 

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"These people are going to be the most frustrated population of people," he said.  

Epstein said he's not liberal or conservative but a progressive pragmatist and he believes the biggest problem in the United States is social and economic inequality but the solution isn't the romantic idea of a person pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps but by the structure of government investing in populations.

"The only structure that is going to be able to handle that, I repeat, the only structure is government," he said.

Epstein also devotes a chapter in his book to critiquing the nonprofit dropout-prevention group Communities in Schools, which is supported by Las Vegas businesswoman and philanthropist Elaine Wynn.

He disputes the group’s success claims as weak statistical studies and writes that Communities in Schools “fails in its substantive purpose but succeeds as a ceremonial affirmation of the popular values that sustain embedded social inequalities.”

Epstein said that by focusing on motivating individual students, Communities in Schools falls victim to America’s “policy romanticism” of self-improvement. Turning policy debates into discussions of character, he says,  ignores the social barriers that impede progress of poor and working-class households.

“To say that the problem of dropping out is related to a brief, amateurish volunteer counseling program is ludicrous,” he said.

Communities in Schools responded with a statement from Executive Vice President Heather Clawson that reads, in part, “It’s unfortunate that Professor Epstein has a fundamental misunderstanding of our work. Communities In Schools is an evidence-based organization that relies on multiple, independent studies to assess our effectiveness and help improve our services.

“We would like to extend an invitation to Professor Epstein to visit one of the schools in Las Vegas that is partnering with CIS to see firsthand what we do and the impact of our work,” Clawson said. 

Guests

William Epstein, UNLV professor and author