07/23/2012 07:40 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

Democracy and Inequality: Tocqueville for the 99%

At the same time that we are learning about Mitt Romney's Cayman Islands tax shelters, low effective tax rate, and alleged outsourcing of jobs overseas, dark money is pouring into the presidential election in torrents. All indications are that if economic inequality in the United States is not the centerpiece of this election season, it will most certainly be its backdrop.

Weakened campaign finance laws and greater economic inequality means that the wealthy have a greater ability to influence the outcome of the election, and some will choose to use this influence to promote candidates who support policies that will only increase such inequality. The lack of limits on campaign donations, and the myriad ways that donations can make their way to support preferred candidates, mean that this election will be both influenced by the existence of economic inequality, and will have a profound impact on its future. The failure of Congress to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which has the potential to chip away at some of the distorting effects that economic inequality has on our political process, is just one instance where this battle between economic inequality and the electoral process is playing out.

While our history is rife with examples of the intersection between economic inequality and inequality of political influence, we can look to an earlier time for reassurance that democratic mechanisms have the potential to function as an effective counterweight to economic inequality.

During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, journeyed to the United States, ostensibly to tour our prisons and jails. His observations on political and civic life in the United States, memorialized in his two-part work, Democracy in America, offer profound insights into the early republic and the ways that wealth and political power were dispersed and separated at the time.

Tocqueville, himself a witness to political, economic and social upheaval in his native France, opens Democracy in America with one of his most poignant observation about the United States:

Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions. I discovered without difficulty the enormous influence that this primary fact exerts on the course of society; it gives a certain direction to public spirit, a certain turn to the laws, new maxims to those who govern, and particular habits to the governed.

Tocqueville believed this "equality of conditions" was a product of several phenomena: over centuries, grand social movements had led, generally, to greater economic equality, breaking the reign of despots and the wealth of the landed gentry; in the U.S., changes in property rights (essentially abolishing primogeniture) and the rejection of aristocratic, hereditary titles created a more dynamic economy; and our political and civic institutions promoted norms that favored a separation between economic power and political power. Indeed, Tocqueville explicitly highlighted such norms:

In our day, one can say that in the United States the wealthy classes of society are almost entirely out of political affairs and that wealth, far from being a right [to power], is a real cause of disfavor and an obstacle to coming to power.

In addition to these observations about the equality of conditions in the United States, he also acknowledged the evils of slavery, opposed the institution in the U.S. and worked to abolish it in the French colonies. Similarly, while extolling the value of equality of conditions, he also harbored concerns that a devotion to such equality could become an obsession, and feared that, in a democracy, the people might favor equality over liberty.

One of the significant political battles over the intersection of economic inequality and political power that arose at the time of Tocqueville's visits to the United States was the conflict surrounding the existence of the Second Bank of the United States. Created by an act of Congress, the bank was, for all intents and purposes, an early private-public partnership. It maintained the accounts of the federal government, had private investors, and made loans to private individuals and businesses. President Jackson was concerned by the apparent political power held by Nicholas Biddle, the head of the bank during Jackson's presidency; to Jackson, the vast wealth Biddle had at his disposal given his position at the bank meant he could hold undue influence over Congress. This wealth, Jackson believed, was being extracted from farmers granted credit by the bank and redistributed to wealthy financiers from the northeast and Europe, the private investors in the bank.

The general public, too, was wary of the concentration of economic power in a single, quasi-governmental entity; at one point, the Second Bank of the United States was considered the largest corporation in the United States and one of the largest in the world.

Jackson famously vetoed the legislative extension of the bank's charter. In his veto statement, Jackson declared that he had to stifle "any prostitution of our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many."

One has to wonder how Tocqueville, let alone Jackson, might have reacted to the role wealth plays in our political system today. We are knee-deep in a river of free flowing campaign cash, the system's floodgates opened by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Recent reports indicate that spending on the presidential campaign alone has already surpassed the billion dollar mark, and some estimate it may reach $3 billion before the last vote is tallied. Democrats in the Senate failed to defeat a Republican filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act, which would not have slowed this free flow of money, but would have required simple disclosure of the names of campaign contributors to political action committees, a necessary but mild check on "the prostitution of our Government." But, apparently, even such weak tea cannot get through a divided Senate.

Recently, the Supreme Court sent a strong statement about its resistance to any effort at reining in the harmful effects of Citizens United. In June, it swiftly reversed a decision from the highest court in Montana that would have given the justices an opportunity to revisit its campaign finance jurisprudence. And the court did so without so much as oral argument.

According to Tocqueville, there were clear divisions between wealth and politics in the United States: "Not being able to take up a rank in public life analogous to the one they occupy in private life, [the rich] abandon the first to concentrate on the second." Today, those interested in using their wealth to influence the political system to their advantage do not necessarily run for office themselves (although, of course, some do). But they do not need to. They can simply buy influence more easily.

Only victories at the ballot box for reform-minded officials have a chance of lessening the distorting effects that unlimited campaign cash has on our political system. Tragically, it is the very flow of these funds that will likely make such victories much more difficult to accomplish.