image by: QuinceCreative
While the U.S. is a democracy in some respects, when it comes to policy, a recent study shows that politicos do the bidding of the rich and pretty much ignore the rest of us. He who pays the piper calls the tune, right? But why are we playing along?
Supposedly, the United States of America is a democracy (from the Greek dêmos, 'people' + kratia, 'power, rule')—a representative democracy when it comes to decision-making, but a direct democracy when it comes to electing the decision-makers. In short, your vote carries no more or less weight than anyone's when it comes to electing, say, your senators, but it's your senators' votes that count when it comes to deciding whether a bill becomes a law.
Barring election fraud—relatively rare in the U.S.—the direct-democracy part basically works. The Republicans took control of the Senate because in the majority of places more people voted for the Republican candidate than for anyone else. And in some sense the representative-democracy part works, too, in that the members of Congress vote on a bill, the votes get tallied, and the tally determines the bill's fate.
But most of us know that isn't the whole story. We know that, despite the basic fidelity of the democratic processes described, actual electoral power is not dispersed equally among us. We know that the wealthy have a disproportionate influence on our political system.
In September 2014, professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University published the results of their research into what sort of government the U.S. has in practice. Entitled "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens", their conclusion is that American the Beautiful is, in effect, an oligarchy, a nation ruled by the rich.
"Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence," they write in the abstract. "The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism."
Gilens and Page's methodology was to compare the results of roughly 1,800 policy initiatives between 1981 and 2002 with pertinent public opinion of people "at the tenth income percentile (quite poor), the fiftieth percentile (median), and the ninetieth percentile (fairly affluent)."
They also examined the intended influence of lobbyists and large interest groups, which "regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials, move through revolving doors between public and private employment, provide self-serving information to officials, draft legislation, and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns; and "evidence [about which] clearly indicates that most […] represent business firms or professionals[, with r]elatively few represent[ing] the poor or even the economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now that the U.S. labor movement has become so weak."
Their finding: "When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."
You can find the consequences of such inequity of influence just about anywhere you look in politics, but perhaps no arena presents a more alarming spectacle than science. For example, Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy, points to three policy areas—climate change/clean energy, soda taxes and sugar limits, and local fracking policies—where the desires of economic elites are influencing government policy contrary to the course generally recommended by the scientific community.
As we know, money can equal influence and when funders’ goals don’t align with scientific understanding, we can get policy results that don’t rely on science—outcomes that may not be in the public’s interest," writes Goldman, decrying how Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United decision has created even more fertile ground for further growth of the disproportionate influence of the economic elite. "But more than just the tremendous amounts of money now in our political system, Citizens United also increased the amount of secret money in our system, an outcome that undermines our democracy. The public deserves to know who is influencing public policy that affects all of us."
Of course, even where we don't know the source of the money, we know where it ends up: with the DemoRepublicrats. And things are likely to get worse in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, a development that is best exemplified by the Koch brothers, who have budgeted nearly $900 million (no, that's not a typo: $900 million) to spend on the long election season. It's enough to make a body spit at the old saw of American democracy, One man, one vote. With money like that in play, who needs votes?
But here's an uncomfortable truth: you, the average American, are to blame. Maybe not solely, but definitely in part. After all, it is you, John Q., who keep voting for either the Democrat or the Republican on the ballot, as if there are no other choices. But it's the DemoRepublicrat machine—"two sides of the same coin," as a character in Richard Linklater's Waking Life puts it, "two management teams bidding for control"—that perpetuates the problem, bowing to corporate pressure, listening to lobbyists more than to the majority of constituents, rejecting any real campaign-finance reform.
Their motivation is simple: they want the money. But the motivation for your complicity in filling their pockets is more abstruse. Sure, you say, we hate the system (as Congress's 14% approval rating pretty clearly indicates), but what else is there? There are only two viable candidates in each election?
That, of course, is the DemoRepublicrat line. Each side would have you believe that any vote for a third-party candidate is a wasted vote—and you can't vote for them (viz., the Democrat/Republican), so you gotta go with us!
The logic of such a stance is completely circular, because it is only your refusal to vote third-party that makes third-party candidates unviable. Because the direct-democracy portion of our system really does work, when a third-party candidate gets more votes than her Democrat and/or Republican challengers, she gets into office.
And in case you don't know, it's happened in your lifetime. In fact, we're about to lose the only third-party voice in the Senate, as Bernie Sanders is retiring (although he has not ruled out running for president).
The Honorable Sen. Sanders has been a tireless advocate for eradicating the disproportionate influence of the wealthy. In 2011, for example, he introduced in the Senate a proposed Constitutional amendment to "expressly exclude for-profit corporations from the rights given to natural persons by the Constitution of the United States, prohibit corporate spending in all elections, and affirm the authority of Congress and the States to regulate corporations and to regulate and set limits on all election contributions and expenditures."
"In the last 10 years, Wall Street and big financial institutions have spent over $5 billion in campaign contributions and in lobbying activities," Sanders wrote in a 2011 article entitled "Who Owns Congress?" "It doesn't matter whether you are a Democrat or a Republican; if you have any influence they are going to go after you."
To be fair, one cannot judge a politician by her DemoRepublicrat cover. Belonging to one or the other of the two management teams does not inherently disqualify one from doing the right thing when it comes to the undue influence of the almighty dollar. (For example, it was a Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat, who crafted the above-referenced Constitutional amendment.) Everyone should be judged on her individual merits.
But the apparent reality of our political system is that the wealthy are only gaining more control of American governmental policy under the helmsmanship of the DemoRepublicrats. And unless you take matters into your democratically represented hands, nothing will change.
"[T]he most serious crisis we face [is] the need to defeat the effort of the wealthiest people in our country to convert our American democracy into an oligarchic form of government where virtually all economic and political power rests in the hands of a small number of enormously rich families," wrote Sanders in 2012. "[…] Why should we be surprised that one family [viz., the Kochs], worth $50 billion, is prepared to spend $400 million in this [i.e., the 2012 presidential] election to protect their interests? That’s a small investment for them and a good investment."
A vote for a Democrat or a Republican is almost always a vote for the rule of the wealthy. If you're comfortable with that status quo, then keep it up. But if you're not, maybe it's time to take a different tack.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
Your Path to Meaningful Connections in the World of Health and Medicine
Connect, Collaborate, and Engage!
Coming Soon - Stitches, the innovative chat app from the creators of HWN. Join meaningful conversations on health and medical topics. Share text, images, and videos seamlessly. Connect directly within HWN's topic pages and articles.