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 Dollarocracy, Nichols 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.
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.
In the elections for the local school boards, county commissions, and city councils that frequently have a more deﬁnitional role in our lives than the federal government does, turnout goes from disappointing to dismal, as many communities report participation rates below 20 percent. It’s so bad that the U.S. State Department assures the world that “2011 U.S. State, Local Elections Important Despite Low Turnout.” If there were broad rejection of the franchise equally across all classes, races, and regions, that would be a subject of profound concern. But it should be even more profoundly concerning that disengagement from the process tends to be concentrated in particular populations—those frequently targeted by voter suppression initiatives of the politically and economically powerful. And voting is deﬁned by class: people in the wealthiest one-sixth of the population vote at nearly double the rate of people in the poorest one-sixth. Not surprisingly, Pew Research polled nonvoters before the election in 2012 and found that by a 5–2 margin those at the lower end favored Obama over Romney.
These ﬁgures reveal the extent to which popular support for current government policies in the United States is overrated. Even in 2008, with the highest voting turnout percentage since 1972, the median voter was in the sixtieth percentile for annual household income—meaning, 59 percent of Americans had lower incomes than the average voter—while the median nonvoter was in the fortieth percentile for annual household income. As far back as the 1970s, research by scholars such as Walter Dean Burnham lent credence to the notion that if Americans voted across income levels at the same rate as most Europeans did, the nation would be electing governments with far greater sympathy toward social democratic policies. Research also demonstrates—despite the repeated claims of conservative pundits and mainstream media commentators about the United States becoming a “center-right nation”—that Americans have not moved to the right on a battery of core political issues since the 1970s. Indeed, they may have become more progressive.
Dollarocracy reigns in practice, as is well outlined in a series of recent trailblazing research projects by leading political scientists. These independent studies and analyses reach a stunning consensus that the interests and opinions of the great bulk of Americans unequivocally have no inﬂuence over the decisions made by Congress or executive agencies today, at least when they run up against the interests of either a powerful corporate lobby or wealthy people as a class. When the opinions of the poor, working class, and middle class diverge from those of the very well off, the opinions of the poor, working class, and middle class cease to have any inﬂuence. While there is a high likelihood that politicians will adopt the positions of their very wealthiest constituents, research conﬁrms with eerie consistency that politicians will generally take the opposite position of those favored by the poorest third of their constituents. Dollarocracy, indeed.
Understood this way, the fact that tens of millions of poor and working-class Americans still vote is a testament to just how deep-seated democratic ideals are in this nation.
In discussing what ails American elections, we must recognize the structural challenges that go beyond money and media. For example, the two-party system itself contributes a good deal to political disengagement. The two parties have rigged the system—in a manner that has nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution—so that it is virtually impossible to launch a credible third party. This means, as former Republican governor of New Mexico and 2012 Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson put it, that in American elections many—perhaps most—Americans “cast their votes for a candidate who doesn’t really reﬂect their views.”
Indeed, polling tells us that there are about as many “independents” as there are Democrats or Republicans, and the ranks of the politically unafﬁliated are swelling. Pundits suggest that these folks are “swing voters,” bouncing back and forth between the big parties. But tens of millions of Americans swing out of the process altogether. They are not having a hard time choosing between the Democrats and the Republicans. They’ve made their choice: they don’t like either major party. But they have nowhere else to go.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Excerpted with permission from Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney. Available from Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.