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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Dollarocracy: How The Money And Media Election Complex Is Destroying America by The Nation correspondent John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, professor at the University of Illinois. Dollarocracy details the influence of special interests in elections. It’s no surprise that money buys elections. Campaign contributors — both Democratic and Republican — with deep pockets have historically dictated the outcomes of elections, on both the national and local levels. We have, with the help of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC, created a society where special interest groups and wealthy individuals are running our country and now have more influence on policy than the general public. In DollarocracyNichols and McChesney are not only extremely critical of this money-buys-elections scenario that has somehow become the norm in the U.S., but they fear what this does and will continue to do to our democratic system.

You can purchase the book here.

During the course of 2011, the United States experienced the largest and most widespread public demonstrations in many decades. To the surprise, even shock, of politicians, pundits, and news media, countless Americans were so dissatisfied with the growing inequality in American life and with the corruption of a political system—and elections—that they were willing to take to the streets. They were standing up to protest a world dominated by the wealthy and by gigantic corporations. They were looking at a future that seemed to belong to a privileged few rather than the great mass of Americans, and they were declaring that they wanted another future—one that worked for everyone. As these often-heterogeneous crowds gathered and demanded attention, their self-referencing slogan was “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” It was a direct challenge to the prevailing wisdom of those in power and the pundits who were so busy hailing America, circa 2011, as the greatest, freest, and most democratic nation in the world that they missed the evidence of political stagnation and democratic decline.

Suddenly, the politicians weren’t writing the script. The people were, or, at the very least, they were trying. This surprised the elites that imagined an “end to history” had occurred with the fall of the Berlin Wall more than two decades earlier. Even more surprising to the punditocracy was how it seemed that a significant percentage of Americans were sympathetic to the protestors and thought they were making accurate and important points. When the demonstrations subsided, the politicians, pundits, and journalists went back to sleep. They returned to regurgitating their bromides, but the sleeping giant of American democracy had let its presence be known. And it is this unruly mass, which wants democracy in reality not just in clichés, that most petrifies the proponents of Dollarocracy.

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Nowhere is this lack of effective political democracy more apparent than in the election system. The United States, unlike most democracies, does not make an explicit guarantee of the right to vote in its Constitution. And the disregard for voting rights, as well as implicit and explicit efforts by the political class to suppress participation, has risen to crisis levels in many states. Americans see that crisis. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed in 2012 polling by the Rasmussen Reports group believe our elections are rigged to produce results that are invariably beyond the control of mere voters. Rasmussen polling in 2011 found that 45 percent, a solid plurality, believe the U.S. Congress would be better chosen through random selection of members from the pages of a phone book than via the current election process. More than 70 percent are certain that the system has degenerated to such an extent that members of Congress trade votes for cash or campaign contributions. And the old trust that citizens once placed in their own representatives, the elected officials whom they knew and respected, has disappeared: 56 percent of those surveyed say their representatives and senators would sell them out for a campaign-contribution check. Two-thirds of Americans say their “trust in the political system has been weakened by the recent developments in political financing,” said Vidar Helgesen, head of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Americans have lost faith in the process. Voter turnout among eligible adults has plummeted since the second half of the nineteenth century, when a 75 percent turnout on Election Day was routine, and when the numbers pushed past the 80 percent level several times. Today, anything approaching a 60 percent turnout for a presidential election—a level not achieved since the 1960s—gets the pundits shouting for joy. The 2012 turnout fell to around 52 percent of American adults. This was down from a 58 percent turnout in 2008. (By comparison, in ten of the other twelve largest democratic nations in the world in terms of GDP, the voter turnout rate in the most recent national elections ranged from 61 to 81 percent; the laggards are Canada at 54 percent and India at 56 percent.) For America’s congressional “off-year” elections—the actual equivalent to many countries’ national elections, which do not have direct elections of the chief executive—turnout is a lot closer to 35 percent of all adults.

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Copyright 2013 The National Memo
  • idamag

    Thomas Jefferson warned against letting money run the government.

  • dtgraham

    The writer makes good points. While all of them are legitimate, there’s something else very important that’s not touched on here as a reason for low voter turnout. That is, the ‘first past the post’ electoral system as opposed to proportional representation. When you live in a district, riding, area (depending on country) where the incumbent is popular and (more importantly) his/her party is overwhelmingly favored in every election…then there’s little reason to get out and vote given that a candidate from any other party is considered virtually unelectable. You just assume the inevitable will happen and may not vote either way…whether you support the inevitable or not.

    If the government and opposition members were made up of an accurate proportional representation of the total vote, that would change everything. You’d vote because you’d know that every single vote counts towards what your country’s legislative body would look like. It also removes the emphasis from individual politicians and places it on political parties and their platforms, where I think it rightly belongs. It would encourage voters to really think about what they were voting for, instead of just voting for Joe or Jane because he/she kissed my baby and they seem nice.

    In the American system this wouldn’t apply to the Presidential election of course, but would to Congress and Senate. There are some countries that do this and I’m favoring this more and more.

    • John Pigg

      I tend to disagree, I think you will find it even harder to get what you want done if we lock candidates completely into ideological roles. Under this sort of system Parties have a great more levity with whom they choose to run. And this kind of think ignores the fact that the “two party system” worked for a long time.

      What we need is for our parties to start to act like traditional American Parties that operate from the ground up. And have different liberal and conservative factions evident within both parties. Instead both parties are selling a National Brand, and wouldn’t you know it that brand doesn’t work everywhere.

      For the Two Party system to work we need our representatives to operate how they once did, not as partisan hacks who will always tow the party line. But maintaining close relationships with opponents in the opposing party who think like they do.

      Republicans need to run Liberal Republicans, and Democrats need to run Conservative Democrats. I do like your idea, I just don’t think its very American and don’t think we can make it work.

      • dtgraham

        Possibly, since the whole U.S. system is built on compromise and has only 2 parties. In some of these PR countries you have a plethora of parties (Israel has 14) and they have to form coalition governments to make it work, so they practice the fine art of compromise too…just in a different way.

        One way the two party system has worked in the past was for one of them to have super majorities everywhere or at least be in control of all 3 branches. That’s how the New Deal and Great Society came to be. It became like a majority government in the Westminster Parliamentary system. Otherwise it can be exceedingly difficult to get major projects of national importance done in the American system of divided government. That’s the flaw, unless they act like traditional American parties that operate from the ground up as you put it.

        The problem there is that the modern Republican party have gone off the rails and no longer appear to have any interest in being traditional. This has been building since the nineties, and they’ve now gamed the system such that the urgency of compromise is no longer there due to the rigged electoral redistricting after 2010. The American system can be a delicate one and making it work requires good faith by both parties. I increasingly don’t see that.

        The reason I brought PR up was that the problems destroying American participatory democracy (according to the article) seem to have been fully addressed in Canada and yet the federal voting percentage in Canada is only 54%. A “laggard” nation. So, other factors are at play. Everybody seems to know that the first past the post system is the likely culprit and PR has long been talked about. Elections Canada has done a study on it and I think it’s going to happen eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later. Then again, the British Parliamentary system seems to be made for proportional representation. It is far less of a good fit in the American republic. Agreed. Still, worthy of some consideration though given how things are going.

        • John Pigg

          All valid points.

          Yes, it might be naive to want to go back to traditional American parties. You are completely right to point out that American Parties in the past represented coalitions abroad. Sadly this has changed.

          You are right to mention historical control of most branches to accomplish goals. But it would be wrong to not forget that the Democrats had a high amount of Southern Democrats, and the GOP had a great number of progressives. Those factions would be willing to break with their party if the price was right.

          I see this current trend as less of a GOP issue than a social issue. I think we have allowed ourselves into boxes with how we view our politics, and our policies.

          Personally, I think fusion voting has enormous potential to shakeup the lack of discourse and party ideological rigidity.

          • dtgraham

            The conservative southern Dixie Democrats certainly did break with their party over civil rights in the 1960’s. They’re now Republicans. The liberal east coast Yankee Republicans hung on for another 1-2 decades but they’re now extinct too, or are Democrats.

            It’s almost impossible to believe today that the parties once had this variety and composition. That does seem to be what’s missing and needed (minus the southern racism), but good luck in reheating that soufle as Paul Mcartney once put it.

          • John Pigg

            I completely agree with you, a two party system can’t work with two European style Parties.

            And lots and lots of money.

        • John Pigg

          And like the article says, obviously. Cut off the money.

      • Vazir Mukhtar

        “Under this sort of system Parties have a great more levity…”

        If only it were “levity” instead of “leverage” we might have more hilarious, or at least less serious, outcomes.

        P.S. We all have such problems. “Comprise” and “consist” are among my bugbears.

  • Vazir Mukhtar

    Perhaps proportional representation is a good thing. I suggest we require a majority, not a plurality to win. A run-off among the top two-three leading candidates in the primaries may well prove that those voting FOR other candidates were voting AGAINST the candidate with the plurality.