I spend a lot of time thinking about democracy. Well, it’s more accurate to say that I spend a lot of time thinking about the rights and responsibilities of life in these United States. Ahh, ... that is, I spend a lot of time thinking about democracy when I am able to escape from being forced to confront the various biases and frauds that surround those of us who live in the United States. Okay, okay, so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about democracy, but I do think about it.
Usually, this train of thought is generated by the intrusion of some example of the power of capitalism. It is then that I remind myself (and everyone who’ll sit still long enough) that capitalism is an economic system, not a political one - which leads to: our political system is a democracy. Inevitably, the next thought is like that TV producer’s end of credits logo tag, “what does that mean?”
For me, democracy in the United States is at base the right and responsibility of the citizenry to actively participate; to vote and to hold government accountable to serving the needs of We, the People. Suffrage is the most powerful right bestowed by a democracy. It is the vote that gives the individual American a voice.
There are many forces at work to co-opt this right. Those who have benefited the most from both our political and economic systems now would like to see democracy replaced by a plutocracy where the wealthy trump We, the People, and they’ve got the lobbyists to prove it. Some say they have already been successful - except for that pesky voting thing. Witness the mind-boggling Supreme Court-enabled rush to the enactment of voter suppression laws.
This isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. This struggle has been going on since America’s Day One. In the colonies, land was wealth and the need for the settlement of a vast quantity of land supported upward mobility for those who had none in the Old World. For the most part, American colonists adopted the voter qualifications that they had known in England. Typically, a voter had to be a free, adult, male resident of his county, a member of the predominant religious group, and one who owned land worth a certain amount of money. It was a colonial belief, and one which persists in contemporary attitudes and tax policies, that only landowners had a permanent stake in the stability of society and paid the bulk of the taxes. While other persons, “are in so mean a situation as to be esteemed to have no will of their own.” The quote is from William Blackstone, an 18th century English lawyer who, I think, recognized the vulnerability of the poor and working class (albeit from a lofty and rather disdainful height). It’s a vulnerability that made the simplest forms of political patronage effective.
Up to 75% of the adult males in most colonies qualified as voters, but after eliminating everyone under the age of 21, all slaves and women, most Jews and Catholics, and men who weren’t landowners, the colonial electorate was only 10-20% of the total population. And it is this minority that has passed on a legacy of discrimination and bias at every level of the American political process. Even after suffrage was granted to all adults 18 years of age and older through the 14th, 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments to the Constitution, we have a federal government dominated by “rich, white men.” Even on bright sun-shiney election days as in 2008, scratch a little deeper and the would-be plutocrats will bring you the storm of the 2010 mid-term elections and the 2012 aftershock. Because, although We, the People have the right and responsibility of suffrage, we seem to really struggle with our decisions about who will get our vote.
Patronage once informed the choices of many voters over the first 200 years of American History. Jobs and holiday turkeys for constituents. Contracts and government subsidies for business. Tax breaks and shelters for corporations and the wealthy. Patronage’s curried favor was remembered in the polling booth. But, time and technology marches on and lobbyists and Super Pacs have redirected political attention to focus on the gears of capitalism rather than the will of We, the People.
In the early days of searching the Internet before you could carry a computer in your pocket and use it to make telephone calls, it was a huge concern to educators and pollsters that things read on the Internet were treated as the gospel truth, regardless of source or improbability. Perhaps people have become more wary of accepting anything that pops up in a search feed, but the wariness does not seem to extend to what is broadcast over the airways. If its on TV, it must be true. Enter political advertisements. No need for the immediate gratification of a holiday turkey-type patronage system, just bombard the electorate with ads attacking your opponent and painting yourself as a family man and patriot and, more than likely, you’ll get the majority of the votes - especially, if you can convince a governor or two to hold sway over election boards. It is absolutely amazing how many challenges can be found to disqualify votes. Remember the presidential election of 2000? Thank you, Florida. Not. And, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission says that corporations and unions can spend as much money as they choose on independent and electioneering communications.
So, here we are, and for the first time in a long time, Americans are starting to realize the importance of their vote. Just in time to be run over by a speeding train, namely money in politics at levels heretofore never even dreamt of. Serving the will of We, the People has been solidly replaced by nonstop political fundraising. Legislation will not see the light of day until all vested parties have had a chance to buy the Congressional support to ensure that the legislation will be of benefit to the vested party with the most outlay. And, that is an understatement.
When Apple’s CEO stated before a Senate panel that it was perfectly legal that Apple paid no taxes of any kind to any country, despite making billions in international profits, he might have added a “thank you” to all the political contributions that helped shape the corporate tax code.
The Federal Campaign Commission mandates the following 2013-2014 campaign contribution limits for individuals: $123,200 overall biennial limit ($48,600 to all candidates $74,600 to all PACs and parties). I mean, really! Why would anyone contribute this kind of money, except to gain influence?
So, again, here we are. What to do? What to do?
- Well, at minimum, We, the People should VOTE! On average, less than 50% of the American electorate actually votes.
I am also of the opinion that we should:
- Demand more information and less infomercials from political candidates. If a candidate gets you all excited and emotional and appeals to your biases, then I suggest you take a cold shower and then take a moment to Google ‘em!
- Stop saying how busy we are and pencil in a little time to participate in democracy. Check on how your elected representatives are voting. Make it harder for election ads to mislead. You can subscribe to an email from http://Congress.org that provides a summary of recent Congressional votes and upcoming Congressional Bills and how your representative or senator voted.
- Read more. Try the newspapers of other countries. Or, if you have abandoned reading in favor of watching, try watching the news broadcasts of other countries.
I want a movement to ban all expenditures on political campaigns beyond a single government fund. This “single-payer universal campaign fund” would be evenly distributed between all eligible candidates. Broadcast time would be provided to all eligible candidates on the Public Broadcasting Service ONLY, with live-streaming and transcripts available online.
In the meantime, maybe we could have politicians wear video cameras, much like those that are more and more in use by police departments. Then again, remember the Nixon tapes? Yikes! Okay, back to the future! VOTE!!