More Money More Political Problems

In an electoral system that’s become more about cash flow than majority voters, wealth forces a cycle of media and money that leaves representative democracy in the dust.

| July 2016

  • The electoral history of the USA is a chronicle of votes stolen, suppressed, lost, miscounted, thrown out, and—most overwhelmingly—purchased.
    Photo by Fotolia/Leigh Prather
  • “Down for the Count: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America” by Andrew Gumbel
    Photo courtesy of The New Press

Every American has opinions on how politics and elections should be handled. But our overarching distaste for even the simplest perceived flaws in our system has a very real impact: today, our nation faces its biggest backslide in voting in more than a century. To delve into the heart of this problem, political journalist and investigative reporter Andrew Gumbel interviewed Democrats, Republicans, and various voting rights activists to compile Down for the Count (The New Press, 2016). First published as Steal This Vote in 2005, Down for the Count provides a revised and updated look at the restrictions and distortions imposed throughout the history of United States’ elections as well as its reoccurring themes, the latest of which are embodied in strict voter ID laws and wild campaign spreading. Gumbel offers a critical assessment (and potential solutions) to the base problems in our electoral system. He concludes that while representative democracy looks like a strong national ideal on paper, it cracks continuously under the pressure of race, power, and money.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

The Super-Rich and the Democratic Future

Imagine a political system in which votes are bought and sold freely in the open market, a system in which it is taken for granted that people will buy all the votes they can afford and use their power to get more money in order to buy more votes, so that a single magnate might easily outvote a whole city. Imagine a situation in which elections have become a mere formality because one or a few individuals are owners of a controlling number of votes. Suppose that nine-tenths of the members of the community are unable to exert any appreciable influence. Suppose, moreover, that the minority is entitled to very little information about what is being done. That is what the political system would be like if it were run the way business is run.

—E.E. Schattschneider1

Does representative democracy have a future, or is it just a phase we’ve been going through? If by “representative democracy” we mean a system in which a majority of voters holds meaningful sway over policy outcomes, the game in the United States may already be over.

The corrupting influence of money hasn’t just upended the priorities of elected officials, who now spend more time raising funds than talking to constituents or researching the issues they vote on. It hasn’t just made campaigns more expensive, more media-saturated, and more vicious. The scenario that Schattschneider imagined in 1960 has largely come to pass. Magnates do outvote entire cities, at least in those cases — the majority — where media coverage of political campaigns cannot keep up with the relentless flow of money. For many people living in noncompetitive or uncontested districts, elections have indeed become just a formality. Billionaires now sponsor presidential candidates (or run for president themselves) the way Renaissance popes and princes once patronized artists; where those candidates previously had to sway party committees and state delegates to become viable office seekers, now they need to win over an audience of just one. As the Wall Street Journal observed of the record crop of billionaire-backed Republican candidates for 2016, “The life of their candidacies is now divorced from their ability to directly raise money from voters.” Whether money alone can translate into electoral success remains to be seen, but it can certainly catapult presidential candidates over the first hurdle and into the public limelight.

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