Why America’s Politics are So Messed Up

DONKEYHOTEY / FLICKR

“I say one becomes a ruler of such a (civil) principality through the support of either the common people or the nobles, for these two opposing parties are to be found in every city; and they originate from the fact that the common people do not want to be commanded or oppressed by the nobles, whereas the nobles do want to command and oppress them.”

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli

Given that you’re probably listening to this to hear about my opinion on modern American politics, it may seem odd to you to begin with a quote from a book written by an Italian in the early 1500s, no matter how famous (or infamous, if you prefer) he would become. What insight could he possibly have into the goings on of a country that wouldn’t come about until 260 years into the future?

Well, quite a lot.

You see, what Machiavelli was describing was how states in which the citizens picked a leader from among them (what he deemed ‘civil principalities’) worked: the nobles had their interests that they wanted to protect, the common people had theirs, and they’d come in conflict. When one side would push too far in their preferred direction, the other side would rally and take control. Then the cycle would repeat. Ostensibly, this is the same pattern that’s followed in democracies all over the world today: one coalition representing the wealthy elite debates the other coalition representing the working and middle classes.

However, over the past 40-plus years, things have changed below the surface. We’ve seen the coalitions change, and the political dynamic change right along with it.

What is this change? Why did this change occur? How has it affected politics in the USA? What’s the point of talking about this?

To answer all of these questions, I’ll have to take you back to a wondrous, far-back time in America: 1976. It’s one of the greatest years in American history in terms of music and cinema, with a staggering number of classic albums and movies being released that year.

While there were many great things happening in 1976 in terms of pop culture, the feelings on the nation writ large were not so positive. 1976 was only three years removed from the end of the Vietnam War, and only two years removed from Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Both events (and the associated conflict of opinions over both) deeply hurt the nation’s image of itself. Not to mention that the economy was struggling to recover after a two-year period of stagnation from ‘73-’75.

With all of that going on, is it any wonder why a mundane, seemingly unimportant Supreme Court case would go relatively unnoticed?

Well, that’s exactly what happened. Argued in front of the Supreme Court on November 10, 1975, and decided on January 30, 1976, the case of Buckley v. Valeo-and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling, would change the course of American politics, with its reverberations continuing to affect the political life of Americans to this very day.

That might seem a little far-fetched at first glance. After all, it’s not a case that many people learn about in their history classes, nor is it commonly spoken about elsewhere. I totally understand why someone would doubt my assertion here. So, let’s look at the case in a bit more detail.

What was the question at hand when U.S. Senator James L. Buckley brought his case before U.S. district court? His assertion was that amendments made to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1974 that placed restrictions on campaign spending were unconstitutional, in that they unfairly limited one’s freedom of speech in an era where electronic communications were becoming more and more prominent. So, the question at hand was this: do campaign expenditures equal political speech?

I think that most people would recoil at the idea that speech could be equated to money. After all, that would literally mean that someone who has more money would also have more speech, which logically doesn’t make sense if free speech is a true right. However, the Supreme Court came to a rather different conclusion. While the justices writing the majority opinion (7-1, with one not participating) did uphold the restrictions on individuals donating directly to candidates or campaigns, it struck down limits on independent campaign expenditures, expenditures made by the candidate themselves, and limitations on total campaign expenditures, deeming some forms of political spending as protected speech.

That’s right: the Supreme Court decided that money (spent in a certain way) was equal to speech. Meaning that, if you are a particularly rich candidate, or you have rich fans that can advocate for your position, you effectively have more speech than someone without those resources.

The effect of this ruling regarding the state of America’s democratic republic has been utterly disastrous. Given that politicians that had greater access to money effectively had a greater platform, it only follows that they’d try to get more and more resources in order to spread their message as widely as possible. How would they do that? Well, by granting those rich folks more of their time and energy. The more that you suck up to rich people, the more that they’ll help you through creating advocacy PACs and (later) super PACs that help you win. It’s a very simple, effective, and terrible cycle.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself: this is starting to sound an awful lot like an unfounded conspiracy. Do you have any proof to back up these claims? Well, fear not: I do have some research that can back me up. Let’s start with the question of whether the government actually listens to voters.

To find out exactly how those in government decide what and what not to do, two political science professors (Martin Gilens from Princeton and Benjamin I. Page from Northwestern) decided to look at polling on a multitude of issues (1,779 polls between the years of 1981 and 2002, to be specific) that not only asked for the respondents’ opinions on an issue, but also the respondents’ income level. They then compared these polls with the actions of the federal government in that time frame. They also looked at the impact of special interest groups on shaping public policy over the same time frame. What they found was equal parts shocking…and totally unsurprising.

What the two professors found was that all three had positive correlations between their desires and what happens when looked at separately. No problem so far. However, when the average American preference (average American being measured as the 50th percentile in terms of income), the economic elite (being measured in this study as the 90th percentile in terms of income), and special interest groups were put together, the economic elite and special interest groups had far more influence on public policy. On a range of 0-1 (0 meaning the preference wasn’t passed and 1 meaning that it was), the economic elites got 0.76 and the special interest groups got 0.56; meaning that the economic elites essentially got what they wanted 3 out of 4 times, and special interest groups got what they wanted a little over half the time. On the other hand, the average American got a 0.03. So, the average American got what they wanted 3% of the time. Compare that to the 76% hit rate for Americans in the top 10% of income (which underestimates the impact of the top 1%, as those in the 90th percentile made about $150,000/yr in 2012 money, so calling them elite is a bit of a misnomer), or the 56% hit rate for special interest groups (which are also dominated by business and economic elite interests), and it’s rather harrowing. To quote the study directly: “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

So, does the government listen to voters? The answer would seem to be ‘no.’

Given that politicians don’t listen to voters, why do so many of them get re-elected term after term? Shouldn’t they be punished for not being responsive to their constituents’ needs? Well, now let’s look at how politicians are elected.

On the surface, this seems to be a silly question. ‘What do you mean?’ you might ask. ‘A person gets elected when they win more votes. Duh.’ Well, you’d technically be right. However, how does someone win those votes? Especially incumbents, when-as we’ve established-they don’t listen to their voters. The simplest answer comes down to partisanship or name recognition. Most voters don’t really know whom they vote for; they see a party that they recognize as the one that they like and vote for that person. However, if an election isn’t partisan in nature, name recognition becomes that much more important. How would your average voter know a name enough to recognize it on the ballot? Well, nowadays, that’s typically done through paid advertising, especially on TV. How do you get your name on people’s TV screens (and now, their social media feeds)? You spend a lot of money.

While the correlation between money spent in the general election and winning is staggering (for House seats the percentage was above 90 for every election cycle, save one between 2000 and 2016), the effect of money is even more prevalent in primary races. According to Adam Bonica, professor of political science at Stanford University, fundraising is, quote, “easily the most reliable indicator of success in primary elections.” While this may not have been nearly as big of an issue back when individual districts were more competitive between the two parties, this is obviously now a huge problem in a country that’s so heavily Gerrymandered to the point where most U.S. House seats are controlled by one party. If you’re running in a one-party district, you can’t win unless you raise enough money to be competitive. In years prior to crowdfunding becoming a viable method of campaign fundraising, the best way to raise money would be going to the few people who had quite a bit of it to spend on campaign contributions (namely, the economic elites as mentioned in Gilens and Page’s study), listening to who you needed to listen to, and saying what you needed to say to secure their support.

To sum all of that up, when so many of the districts are controlled by one party, then primaries become more important than the general election in terms of determining a representative. The most reliable indicator of which candidate will win a primary is fundraising. Therefore, the most reliable indicator of who’s going to win an election and become a U.S. Representative is who can raise the most money, not who has the best policy or who can attract the most voters. So, in essence, politicians ARE responsive to their constituents…their true constituents: those that donate money to their campaigns.

OK, so now we know that the average American has little-to-no say in what policies the government does or doesn’t enact, and we know that the reason that they don’t is that politicians have very little incentive to go against the economic elites that put them into office in the first place.

Now, on their own, those two developments have been terrible in terms of building trust among Americans in their own government. However, there’s one more awful development that needs to be addressed to truly understand why our politics have become truly broken, and it’s one that could be implied rather easily: neither party represents the will of the common people.

Given that there aren’t enough politicians in office that can effectively reflect the needs of average Americans, it stands to reason that neither of the two major political parties really represent their interests. However, you know what makes for even better evidence than sound logic and reasoning? Why, the party’s own actions, of course!

Side note: before I get into discussing the shift of focus of the Democratic party during the mid-’80s, I just want to let you know that I won’t be going into detail on the Republican party in the same way. The reason is that Republicans haven’t ever been the party of working-class people on economic issues, and never have even pretended to be. Therefore, they haven’t shifted away from working class people, as they were never with working class people on economics to begin with. Democrats, on the other hand, are ostensibly the party of said working class, so it’s more important to analyze them here.

With that out of the way, let me take you back to the year 1985. The previous year, the party’s candidate for President (Walter Mondale) got absolutely crushed by Ronald Reagan, winning the Presidency by an electoral vote victory of 525-13. In response, the Democrats started looking around for answers: how could they eventually win back the White House after such a disastrous defeat? Well, enter the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

The DLC was a group of Democrats whose goal was to pull the Democrats away from the left to the center and thereby win back the White House. They believed that moving more towards the center would make them more palatable to the general public. In 1985, one could argue that they were right, and that they were eventually proven right by Bill Clinton in 1992. However, what happened in the process of doing that was that the Democrats moved away from their working-class economic roots in favor of becoming the party for a more ‘white-collar’ demographic. This led to a larger emphasis on education and meritocracy, as opposed to labor rights and the politics of solidarity that unions embodied. As Thomas Frank, author of Listen Liberal, a book about the rise of the DLC and its continued influence on the Democratic party into the modern day stated, “the first commandment of the professional class is the idea of meritocracy, which allows people to think that those on top are there because they deserve to be.” He elaborates on what the meaning of meritocracy is by saying: “that there is no

solidarity in a meritocracy. A meritocracy really is every man for himself…. If somebody gets fired, they must’ve deserved it somehow.” An example of how this might manifest policy-wise is also highlighted by Mr. Frank: “when the Democrats, the party of the professionals, look at the economic problems of working-class people, they always see an educational problem…” which indicates that the Democrats don’t have an interest in directly helping common people so much as trying to make common people more professional. Given this cultural shift coinciding with the massively increased influence of money in politics, it’s clear that the Democrats no longer attempt to represent labor and the working-class, but rather they try to represent the 90th percentile in terms of income.

Which brings us back to the opening quote from Machiavelli; about how civil principalities have two opposing parties based around economic class, and how one becomes a leader of such a city.

He was describing civil principalities that functioned. However, there hasn’t been a party in America that represents the wishes of the common people for 35-40 years now, and, as such, the politics of the country no longer function. Instead of having real, substantive debates on how to best address the issues of the day (healthcare, wages, housing, climate change, etc.), we’re having fights over culture war issues, none of which directly improve the lives of others. And everyone is so angry all the time that they can hardly see straight when they see someone sharing an opinion that differs from theirs, even if said issue will likely have little impact on their own lives.

Now that we know what the problem is, how can we fix it?

Let’s start with a couple of things that will never work: violence and disassociation. Political violence, besides being utterly abhorrent, is also extremely ineffective, as it always leads to a harsher backlash. Even if you have the best argument in the world; if you resort to violence, just about everyone else will push back and rightfully so.

Disassociation simply removes those who actually know what the problem is from being part of the potential solution. Again, it’s completely counterproductive towards the goal of fixing our political issues.

With that out of the way, here are three ways in which I can see us really make progress on fixing these issues: direct action, issue advocacy, and smarter voting.

I include direct action because I could see getting money out of politics as being a worthy demand of a general strike (meaning a substantial percentage of all workers goes on strike at once). A general strike is a sort of white whale in the political organizing world but doing so would put a lot of different policy proposals on the table, including removing political corruption.

Issue advocacy is the most direct way of tackling the issue of money in politics. Issue advocacy seeks to use the political system to make political corruption illegal. As hard as it might be to believe, there actually has been some progress made on this front. If you’re looking to get involved with fixing the problem, there are two solid groups to join: represent.us and Wolf-PAC. I recommend checking both out and making your choice as to which group would be better to join.

Finally, I left the simplest and easiest option for last, and that’s to simply vote smarter. Pay attention to the primaries; go on opensecrets.org to find out where the candidate that you’re looking at gets their funding from; make campaign finance a major issue of importance to you. The entire reason that politicians take money from wealthy donors and corporations is that they believe that taking that money will give them a better chance of getting elected. If it becomes politically toxic to take money from wealthy individuals and corporations, then more and more politicians will refuse to take it.

If we do any of these three things, then we have a chance to fix this broken political system and get back to having a government that works for its voters (the way it should be). Maybe we’ll even start to be kinder to each other.

I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up for that last point, but I’m an optimist.

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