You heard it here first.

Harry E. Walker/Getty Images

Maybe You Heard: The System Is Rigged

Paula Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics for Bloomberg View. She was London bureau chief for Businessweek and Washington economics editor for the New York Times, and is a co-author of “Take on the Street: How to Fight for Your Financial Future.”
Read More.
a | A

Rigged. No word more appropriately describes the 2016 presidential election. I don't mean that the election is being fixed by ballot-box stuffing, or that politicians are buying votes by handing out "walking-around money."   

I'm talking about how the word "rigged" keeps popping up everywhere, as if speech writers had a lexicographic central casting. Politicians use it to make the case for their candidacies. Voters use it to explain why they're hopping mad. Liberal movements use it as their raison d'etre. Conservatives use it to mock the liberal "elites" and government in Washington. Everything, it seems, is rigged -- from banks to tax codes and criminal prosecutions.

Elizabeth Warren put the word into political play in 2012, in a passionate speech at the Democratic National Convention: "People feel like the system is rigged against them, and here is the painful part, they're right. The system is rigged." The worst offenders: oil subsidies, low tax rates paid by billionaires, and Wall Street CEOs who, after the 2008 financial crisis, "still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors."

The Massachusetts senator hasn't let up.  She put out a report last month called "Rigged Justice," which cites all the times corporations have been in trouble yet ultimately escaped the long arm of the law.  Her mantra is aimed especially at banks that got bailed out after the housing collapse, when homeowners didn't. In Warren's world, it all happened according to some playbook cooked up by her sworn enemies -- who included Treasury secretaries Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke -- rather than as the result of decisions made on the fly as the global economy was headed off the cliff.

Now Warren is overshadowed by Bernie Sanders, who believes the entire economy is rigged, having been "designed by the wealthiest people in this country to benefit the wealthiest people in this country at the expense of everybody else."

Congress, in Sanders's eyes, is likewise rigged, because Big Money donors allow lawmakers to ignore the needs of constituents. And when the average person works long hours for low wages while 58 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent, the compensation system must be rigged.

Bernie Sanders himself is cast as a victim of this rigging, and it isn't just the liberal blogosphere making the claim. MSNBC's Joe "Morning Joe" Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski in December took turns roasting the Democratic National Committee for rigging the debate calendar in Hillary Clinton's favor.   

In his Jan. 13 State of the Union address, Obama climbed on the bandwagon. He lamented that, over seven years, he and congressional Republicans hadn't been able to agree on "what role the government should play in making sure the system's not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and big corporations."  

Republicans, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of all this rigging, also see themselves as victims. In presidential debates, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has said the tax system is "rigged for the rich."

Conservatives see evidence of rigging everywhere: in the Obama administration's executive orders to circumvent Congress, for example, and more generally in the Washington cabal that aims to steal what is rightfully theirs. Famously comparing Congress to the World Wrestling Federation, Ted Cruz said: "the outcome is pre-rigged, the outcome is predetermined. They know who's going to win and it's all for show."

And don't forget the media. In the undercard debate on Jan. 28, Carly Fiorina urged Americans to reclaim power from the pundits and the press. "We were intended to be a citizen government, citizens. The game is rigged. You have the power. Take our country back." 

The media can play the game too. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll taken before the Iowa caucuses asked respondents if they thought the "system works reasonably well for those who work hard to get ahead, or do you think the system is rigged against all but the very rich and powerful?"

The answers revealed a lot about the voters' state of mind this year: 67 percent of Democrats said the system is rigged, and 38 percent of Republicans did.

Yes, voters in both parties have always expressed suspicions that the game is stacked against them in one way or another. But in 2016, it seems the party that owns the "R" word could own the election.

More than anything, that may explain why Hillary Clinton didn't put Bernie Sanders away in Iowa's Democratic caucuses on Monday night. She never uses the word.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net