© Josh Sager – June 2013
In the late 20th century, the American democracy contracted a slow-moving, but potentially fatal, political disease. This disease was engineered by a wealthy partisan minority and was left untreated because the American public failed to fully understand the consequences of their inaction.
A combination of corruption due to the deregulation of money in politics, gerrymandering, and the increasingly extreme political atmosphere have led to a situation where the people have lost control over their government—that is, unless they happen to be one of the multi-millionaire or billionaire donors who fund the elections. This toxic mixture of factors has led to a political situation in the USA where corporations and rich individuals have essentially seized control over vast portions of the federal legislature and are using this control to enrich themselves further.
Unless we begin treating the affliction which is crippling our democracy, we will continue dow the road to becoming a country that is run through a variety of corporatism or corporate feudalism, where the people have no power in the government and wealthy trans-national corporations have all of the power.
Money in Politics
Money may not buy votes directly, but it can buy a huge amount of media propaganda and corrupt vulnerable politicians. A politician with money is able to buy ads and media with which to convince people to vote for them come election-time; similarly, they can run attack ads to defame the character of their opponent and dissuade people from voting for them. In addition to campaign funds, wealthy interest are able to ply politicians and aids with high-paying jobs after they leave office (often as “lobbyists,” making a million dollars a year), and ensure that they have an incentive to play ball.
Currently, the American political landscape is dominated by Super-PACS, funded through huge donations from anonymous big-money donors. Donors don’t give “donations” to politicians for free and there is an implicit exchange of money for access in most big-money political donation.
For example, if a politician were to get money from oil and gas lobbyists, they are unlikely to support and attempts to deal with global climate change—we see exactly this on the House Energy Sub-committee, where oil and gas companies have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians who protect their interests.
In 1976, the Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo declared that money equaled speech in respect to political donations. As such, individuals had the protected right to spend money in elections under the First Amendment.
For over three decades, the Valeo case allowed individuals to spend money in politics, but it did not extend this right to corporations. Unfortunately, this changed in 2010, when the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision by the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a constitutional right to free speech. This decision led to a massive uptick in the amount of money in politics—corporations have trillions of dollars to spend and everything to gain from buying our politicians—and was the point where the disease afflicting American democracy entered its terminal phase.
In effect, the Buckley and Citizens United decisions turned the American political landscape into a very large open auction—the entity with the most money has the most speech, thus they have the most ability to influence public opinion.
Ultimately, money in politics is the genesis point for most of the corruption in our current government—sure, other factors (ex. racism, ignorance, religion, etc.) play a part, but they are amplified and propped up through the propagation of money in our political environment.
For example: Republicans support programs which benefit corporations more than Democrats, but the right wing is unattractive to many minority voters. In order to push the Republicans who benefit their interests, corporate money—in the form of groups like ALEC—pushes for disenfranchising electoral laws that would target those who would vote Democratic. As you can see with this example, the monetary interests of corporations and the lax campaign finance laws exacerbate and magnify pre-existing social problems (voting discrimination based upon race)
Structural Attacks on Democracy
In addition to the invasive presence of money in politics, our democracy is being corroded by internal conflicts and structural problems. Partisan political parties have gerrymandered districts to favor their interests, despite the detrimental effects on democracy.
Gerrymandering and Partisan Balkanization
Over the last few decades, the United States has simultaneously become more partisan and more gerrymandered. These situations combine to create a situation where politicians have stacked the electoral deck to the point where they are no longer accountable to their constituency—they are in a “safe” district and, even if they do things which are intensely unpopular, they are able to hold onto their seats.
Gerrymandering is the practice of “cracking, stacking, and packing” the electorate so that a party or candidate has an advantage come election time. Districts can be gerrymandered either so that constituencies are divided enough that they automatically lose a district vote (ex. putting an enclave of Democrats in a reliably Republican district to nullify their votes.) or concentrated enough so that their votes are less valuable (ex. making a 90% Democratic district so other districts will lean more Republican).
While gerrymandering has always existed, the 2010 election brought into power a set of Republicans who took the practice to a new level. Once in office, these Republicans set about gerrymandering every state that they had power over—they were immensely successful. It is expected that this effort by Republicans will let them retain a disproportionate amount of power in the legislature until at least 2020 (when redistricting happens again).
To put the success of this effort into perspective, we can simply look at the results of the 2012 election. Despite getting over a million more votes in House races than Republicans, the Democrats remain in the minority in the House of Representatives. The people voted Democrats into power in 2012, but the votes were counted in a way which led to the Republicans being given many more seats in Congress.
The Crippling of the Voting Rights Act
In June of 2012, the Conservative majority on the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act by eliminating its 4th Section. This crippling of such a major component of the primary federal voting protection law will inevitably lead to even more degradation of the American democracy.
Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act constituted the formula for deciding which areas of the country are covered under the “pre-clearance” provisions for federal approval of voting law changes. Under the recently struck formula, areas which have a history of race-based voter disenfranchisement were required to get federal approval before they were legally allowed to change voting laws (under Section 5). As the Supreme Court has invalidated the formula in Section 4, Section 5 has been functionally disabled until Congress can agree on a substitute formula (which is unlikely).
Less than 48 hours after the crippling of the Voting Rights Act, six of the state government with a history of discrimination announced that they will begin implementing the laws which were previously blocked under the federal law. Essentially, these states are now implementing laws which have already been determined to be too racist to be legal, yet they have the right to do this now that they no longer are held to account by the VRA.
In the coming years, we will either see the repair of the Voting rights Act or the implementation of laws which blatantly discriminate against racial/ethnic minorities—the former possibility will result in a continuation of the less than idea status quo, while the latter will result in the death-knell of democracy for many Americans.
When corporations are allowed to buy our elections and many Americans have their fundamental right to vote taken away, democracy is diseased. This disease cannot be avoided further, lest it become too severe to remedy.
In order to fix our democracy, we must take several steps:
First, we must extend the Voting Rights Act over the entire country. If the Supreme Court doesn’t like the fact that the south is targeted more than the north due to their racist past (and I say “like” because their decision is a personal opinion, not based in any Constitutional precedent), then we can just apply the law equally and to all. In addition to remedying the issue of a crippled VRA, this expansion would prevent many of the states without a history of racist voter disenfranchisement from developing it in the modern era (as we have seen happen in some Midwestern states).
Second, we must remove money from politics, ban corporate personhood, and close the revolving door through an amendment to the Constitution. Some groups—including Wolf-PAC and Move to Amend—have begun this process, but they need help in order to call a constitutional convention in the states (to bypass corrupt federal politicians).
Third, we must clean house of the corrupt politicians. Every politician to sell their soul and support corporatist policies in era of corporate money in politics must be sent home regardless of the letter next to their name. This housecleaning would happen AFTER campaign finance reform and the repair of voting laws so that we can start a fresh political era with relatively uncorrupted politicians.
If we achieve these three goals, the American democracy will not only heal from its affliction, but will be stronger than ever.