As we enter the final month or so of the election, it is good to think about the systemic problems we have with the way we choose our political leaders. Widespread disgust with government has been with us since the 1970s when the legitimation crisis first appeared, with Congressional approval rating now at a pitiful 13.8%, and disapproval at nearly 80%. I hear from people all the time that representatives just don’t do what’s right for the general public. While conservatives think the system is distorted by those who they imagine to be the betrayers of America -- liberals, scientists, unions, immigrants, feminists, people of color, and the LGBT community -- a more reality-based view begins with the question, cui bono? Who benefits? Who is it that gains the most from our current electoral system, as it actually functions (or more accurately, dysfunctions)?
Given that middle- and working class incomes have stagnated since the early 1970s while the share of society’s commonly-created economic pie going to the wealthy has exploded, the obvious answer is that it is the wealthy few who are the main beneficiaries of the status quo. Despite conservative attempts to divide and conquer the working class with culture wars, ultimately the main special interest group that a democracy should always vigilantly watch as a potential source of tyranny is the wealthy elite.
While the United States (and other advanced societies) call themselves democracies and ideally believe themselves to be governed of, by, and for the people, the names of things do not always match reality. We still retain some vestige of democratic control, in that the public when roused can slow the machinations of the 1% for a time. But for all other practical purposes we are an oligarchy -- a government of, by, and for the wealthy few -- that keeps up the illusion and pretense of being a democracy. We are in effect an oligarchy because most of the political decisions, large and small, are made by an elite corporate class.
While most regular people still have the right to vote (although note well that there is a conservative effort to undermine even that fundamental democratic act), voting is hardly definitive of modern governance. Voting is only one political activity among many, and not always the most important or influential one: one could, for example, wield more political influence by becoming a local- or state-level political party volunteer and helping to canvass and organize campaigns. Indeed such activists have more influence than the average voter even when they themselves neglect to vote. However, the corruption of our political system is not mainly a problem of distortion by the political parties, which are necessary organizing institutions in a large, complex, modern political culture. If the parties don’t serve the public good it is because their representation is itself distorted by other, deeper factors.
Private money dominating the electoral system is the main way that our representative democracy is subverted and distorted into an unrepresentative oligarchy. First, elections are preceded by long, complicated, expensive political campaigns whose main purpose is to influence and sway how people vote. Each campaign, whether local, state, congressional, or presidential, has to communicate with large numbers of constituents: the average Congressional district has a total population of almost 700,000 people, and presidential candidates must address a national electorate of over 230,000,000 people (our voting age population). Communicating with these large electorates requires a large, complex operation that combines professional campaign strategists and operatives with party activists to organize public rallies and speeches, neighborhood canvassing, get-out-the-vote efforts, and advanced media advertising. All of this is expensive; a modern political campaign is a capital-hungry enterprise.
That expense opens the door for those able to donate large amounts of money to campaigns to have great leverage over representatives: if the rich people don’t get what they want out of a candidate they will move their funds to another, and this form of capital strike leaves critics of oligarchy, inequality, and capitalism without the resources to effectively get their ideas into the sphere of public debate. (It’s not strictly a matter of free speech; these voices can speak, they just don’t have the money to be widely heard.) Thus there is an inherent bias in a privately-funded campaign system towards those candidates and parties with a conservative ideology; the system makes the Republican Party more powerful than it otherwise would be, and forces the Democratic Party to push its own message and principles in a more pro-corporate direction in order to compete.
Furthermore, there is a vicious cycle at work with regard to the privately funded campaign media system that degrades the overall level of public debate. While candidates would need to use media to communicate with the electorate even in an ideal system, large amounts of money fuel media-driven campaigns empty of substance and full of propaganda. Big money allows access to expensive public relations techniques that distort messages away from substantive matters of policies and principles to empty imagery and sloganeering.
Additionally, elections are only the first step in the policy-making process, for representatives then go on to make decisions about the substance and technical matters of laws, policies, and practices, and how these these decisions are made, and who benefits from them, is currently mostly done during the lobbying process, where the wealthy and industry insiders have an overwhelming influence as well because lobbying requires expensive experts with access and contacts. Thus the corporate class uses money to dominate both the pre-election campaign and the post-election policy process.
Elections should be competitions of ideas, not competitions of treasure chests. In order for citizens to make good choices, they have to be able to have at least somewhat accurate messages from a variety of sources of political information; when the advertising environment between parties and candidates is equal, voters will hear a plethora of contesting messages, some which will inform and some which will counter other messages, from which they can glean information. When one group, such as the wealthy 1% of a society, have much more of a resource that can magnify their speech, the information available to the public to make judgments will be vastly distorted. As I will argue in the next post in this series, the only truly effective solution to this is the full public financing of elections.