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Jonathan Weiler

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On the Eve of our Highest Profile Democratic Election, 4 Reasons Why our Democracy Is Broken

Posted: 10/19/2012 4:40 pm

The final frantic weeks of a Presidential election turn politics into something like the fortnight leading up to the Super Bowl, with breathless 24/7 analysis picking over the most excruciating minutiae, swelling TV audiences and ratings and a sense that every American has some stake in the outcome.

Of course, the consequences of the outcome of the Super Bowl and that of a presidential election are not the same. But the way in which this putatively most democratic of exercises tends to get reduced to sporting-event like coverage obscures some deeper realities about the health, or lack thereof, of our democracy. With all due warnings about nostalgia about a golden age of American democracy that never existed, here are four especially disturbing and depressing signs that our political institutions are doing a worse and worse job of reflecting meaningful the interests of "We, The People."

1) An increasingly entrenched American oligarchy.

Inequality, as is well-established by now (apart from the usual reality-deniers on the right), is at levels not seen in the U.S. since at least the 1920s. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States has higher levels of inequality than all other wealthy countries. Of the nearly three dozen member states of the OECD, only Mexico and Turkey rank worse on this measure. The focus on the 1 percent has obscured to some degree the extent to which the super-duper rich -- the Mitt Romneys of the world, those in the top 0.1 percent and even the top 0.01 percent -- have accumulated the lion's share of the wealth amassed in the United States over the past generation.

The top 400 richest Americans possess as much wealth as the bottom 150 million Americans. The top 1/100th of one percent of Americans have average annual incomes of $27 million. For the bottom 90 percent, the figure is about $31,000.

These inequalities aren't just problematic in their own right. They are almost certainly having increasingly adverse consequences for economic growth itself, for upward mobility and a host of other social pathologies, including higher mortality rates for the less well-off. The rending of the social fabric that is an ultimately inescapable product of intensifying inequality imperils Americans' well-being. This is most obvious in the red states, whose penurious government support for the poor has contributed to those states' worse performance on a range of indicators, from health and mortality, to education, child poverty and more. But beyond all that, growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few has translated into an increasingly rigged political game, as studies by political scientists Martin Gilens and Larry Bartels, among others, have shown. Through their lobbyists, political contributions and increasingly shared and insular social networks, wealthy elites have had more and more success in ensuring that legislatures pass laws that benefit those self-same elites and reproduce their privileges at the expense of ordinary Americans. Each in its own way, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's Winner-Take-All-Politics, Glenn Greenwald's Liberty and Justice for Some and Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites elucidate important pieces of this clearly emerging picture. Senator Dick Durbin pithily summarized the prevailing state of play in the Senate in 2009, in the aftermath of failed legislation to impose modest new rules on the banking industry, "Frankly, the banks own the place." Much could be said about elite influence broadly at virtually all levels of governments.

A Romney win, it should be emphasized, would undoubtedly exacerbate all of these tendencies, especially his promise to enact large tax cuts for the wealthy, which he will pay for by eliminating tax preferences for the less well-off and by gutting social programs, like Medicaid, that the poor rely on for vital services. But America's increasing lurch toward oligarchy, while mitigated by some Obama policies, will not abate dramatically in a second Obama term.

2) Ignoring critical issues.

Inequality has barely rated a mention in the presidential debates. Ditto poverty which, as the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has documented, has been a no-show on the campaign trail and in media coverage for months. Contrary to the favored right-wing meme that people in poverty have it made in the shade, the Census Bureau counts a family of four as impoverished only if household income is less than $23,000 a year. That sound good to you? The President has essentially sidestepped the issue during the debates and while his challenger has uttered the word a few times, it's indisputably true that his policies would only make such matters much worse. Given that roughly 20 percent of American children live in poverty, this is an especially disgraceful omission.

And regarding that little business of a planetary emergency, a.k.a. climate change? Again it's been avoided like the plague on the campaign trail and in the debates. As Eugene Robinson noted in the Washington Post this morning, President Obama accepts the scientific consensus on the issue, a clear contrast to the climate-denying boneheads on the right. Republican obstructionism -- they now pillory ideas like cap and trade they once supported because crass partisan advantage really is all they care about -- has been a major obstacle to getting anything done on the issue. And there were substantial monies in the stimulus package for developing clean technologies. But the debates have witnessed both candidates falling all over each to burnish their bona fides as a legitimate carbon exploiter. As Robinson described it, "If this is a contest to see who can pretend to be more ignorant of the environmental locomotive that's barreling down the tracks toward us, Romney wins narrowly."

It's a pathetic state of affairs for a country that is responsible for at least 20% of all carbon emissions globally. Every other wealthy democracy is taking meaningful steps to address this problem. And our leaders are still peddling nonsense like "clean coal." This is not only a failure of responsiveness to our most pressing needs, but a shameful abrogation of global responsibility.


3) Our metastasizing national security state.

It is now the law of the land that the United States government can spy on Americans' ordinary communications without a warrant. That this is now fact is, in itself, an extraordinary development in a country whose self-identity is as the freest in the history of the world. In this, and in other ways, our government is now operating with what Dan Froomkin recently described as "unprecedented secrecy," making it increasingly difficult for journalists and other entities acting in the public interest to hold our supposedly democratic government accountable for its actions and to carve out for citizens zones of privacy and protection from the intrusive hand of the state. This increasing secrecy and surveillance is being exacerbated by the Obama administration's unprecedented war on whistle blowers, utilizing the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute journalists who dare try to investigate government wrong-doing. We Are Change.org recently tried to interview two high-profile journalists -- MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell and FOX News' Juan Williams -- concerning their thoughts on this unprecedented attack on news media. Each separately demurred that he wasn't in a position to answer the question because he didn't know enough about the issues (O'Donnell, at least, seemed to have some genuine misgivings about his ignorance on the matter). Furthermore, we've developed a global system of imprisoning individuals indefinitely without charge and the President signed a bill last winter that would make it possible to detain indefinitely American citizens without trial. These developments bode poorly for the basic protections supposedly provided by the first, fourth, fifth and eighth amendments, which I think most people would have considered kind of important for securing fundamental freedoms in our democratic system of government. And on this whole suite of issues, there is scarcely any day light between the two parties.


4) Our screwy political institutions, including the Electoral College

The nature of our political divisions and the persistence of the Electoral College mean that, in presidential elections, when we are presumably choosing someone to represent and lead the entire nation, only nine states out of fifty really matter at this point. Those nine states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Virginia -- account for roughly 20 percent of the total population of the United States. And it's not as if those states are a reasonable microcosm of America more broadly. To add to the structural representation problems, the United States Senate dramatically over-represents a slew of tiny states with largely white populations. This problem has only been worsened by the now de facto rule that you need a super majority to pass any legislation in that most unrepresentative of elected bodies. In short, both our presidential elections and our national legislature are now skewed to an unrepresentative minority of Americans.

Each of these problems poses different challenges for our representative democracy. But all tend to reinforce one another, allowing an increasingly insular elite increasing latitude to govern in their own interests, even when doing so comes at the direct expense of the well-being (and freedom) of most Americans. This is a broken democracy, regardless of the winner on November 6.

 

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