The political system’s indifference to the needs of the American people could not have been made clearer in recent days.
At a time when economic inequality is increasing and the US racial divide is ever more evident, Congress negotiated a massive spending bill behind closed doors and further empowered the country’s economic elite. It voted last week to increase the amount of money an individual—but not a business—can give to party committees from $97,200 to $776,600. In part, this was push-back by the parties against the independent expenditures unleashed by recent Court decisions, so that more campaign dollars flow directly into their coffers. But more than that, it increases the already overwhelming clout of wealthy political donors.
The vote further reduces the likelihood of reversing the trend toward a society increasingly divided by wealth and race. Not many who will be making an annual six-figure contribution to either party are likely to press to achieve racial justice or to increase taxation at the top of the income distribution. Yet doing both is necessary to reverse the overlapping racial and economic polarization currently engulfing the country.
The only possible source of corrective action lies in the political realm. But studies indicate the public is already thoroughly alienated from the political process. The voter turnout rate in 2014 was the lowest since 1942. The reality is that the only possible offset to money is a large turnout of voters in opposition to current trends.
At the moment, many believe that the Congress is a tool of the rich and that it is a waste of time to try to correct the problem. This alienation is particularly widespread among young people.
If the American people want to reverse oligarchic domination, they must be persuaded that political engagement is an empowering mechanism, not just for the rich, but potentially for themselves as well. They will have to be convinced that it is possible to construct an electoral system in which—unlike the current system—opportunity exists for people outside of the elite to shape policy outcomes.
Politics as a public good
Treating the political system as a public good—a service provided by the government such as education, defense or roads—would be a start. If candidates had the option of financing their electoral races with public funds, two very important changes would occur. Both would help rein in the power of the economic elite.
In the first place, because access to private wealth would no longer be a barrier to candidacies, more people representing the middle class and the poor could run for office. Second, and as a result, voters would be able to elect office seekers other than those who represent the interests primarily of political donors. There is no certainty that an anti-elitist outcome would prevail with a public campaign funding option. But until that option appears, it’s unlikely the current trend toward inequality will be reversed. Other options alone, such as shortening campaigns or putting forth a Constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling are inadequate to turn the tide and re-empower average Americans.
Treating the electoral system as a public good has barely made it onto the country’s political agenda. Polling data indicate that people are receptive to the idea. But advocating the public financing of elections has yet to become a winning platform for candidates.
A long-term project
The upshot is that any effort to achieve an America of greater fairness has to be thought of as a long-term project. The people will have to come to believe what they do not now believe—that it is possible to construct a new politics in which they exercise decisive power.
This will not be easy. Wealth not only exercises power in the political realm, but in the media as well. Even so, it can be done. Advocacy organizations such as Democracy Matters, Every Voice, Reprensent.Us and Rootstrikers have made an effort to persuade Americans of the efficacy of public political financing. But the projects currently underway to curb the role of private money in politics do not nearly approach the scale required.
Ironically, it might well take rich benefactors to fund this effort. Changing the views of the American people will require a systematic plan and the resources to support such organizing. Political alienation in this country is deep, and can only be overcome with an intensive education effort that is sustained over many years.