The framers of the US Constitution were very much in favour of a mixed political system. They considered pure democracy to have a strong tendency towards instability, lack of wisdom, and majority tyranny. The experience of popular self-rule under the Articles of Confederation from 1778 to 1789 led to concerns among the federalist leaders that “institutions too responsive to the public – with short term of office – would tend to be fickle, unwise and irresponsible.” So, the public’s power of electing representatives to the lower house of the national legislature was balanced by neither the Senate nor the Supreme Court being selected in elections (until the early 20th century, the US Senate was chosen by state legislatures). The argument by Madison in Federalist Paper No.62 against a directly elected Senate, was that it should represent “the cool and deliberate sense of the community” against “the temporary errors and delusions” of the people’s own immediate representatives in the lower house (Berggruen & Gardels, 2013, p.59-60).

This mixed political system was initially very successful, but over time has become increasingly dysfunctional. Professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University looked recently at more than twenty years of data to see if the government really represents the people. Their findings suggest that the number of Americans for or against any idea has no impact on the likelihood of Congress making it law: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” One thing that does have an influence is money. While the opinions of the bottom 90% of income earners have no impact, economic elites, business interests, and people who can afford lobbyists, carry major influence.” In another study, Joshua Kalla of the University of California, Berkeley and David Broockman of Stanford University found that the majority of voters have a hard time even getting a foot in the doorway of an elected representative. They claim that their randomised field experiment “documented that policy makers grant preferential treatment to individuals because they have donated to campaigns.” This is not surprising given that elected officials in the States spend 30–70% of their time in office fundraising. In the words of one of its former presidents, Jimmy Carter, The US is now an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery”. Surely, this must still be better than, for example, the one-party system in China? Perhaps, but China was still a feudal state when democracy was introduced in the US. The issue here is how and why what was at one point the most advanced political system in the world has descended into a de facto plutocracy.

The founding fathers of the United States tried to create a new system on the rational principles of the Enlightenment and get rid of the vestiges of the feudal system still burdening most of Europe and the rest of the world. They managed remarkably well, so what has happened since? There are many factors that have contributed to this erosion of democracy: low electoral turnouts, barriers to participation, lobbying, filibustering, gerrymandering, the privatisation of the Federal Reserve… They all can be linked to the same six factors, discussed earlier, that were instrumental to the rise of capitalism and its downfall when they spiralled out of control. What brought success to the States has led to its political decline.

Money: renowned political philosopher John Rawls warned: “the power of money in politics, especially from the largest special interests such as corporations, distorts honest discourse and undermines the utility of elections as means of promoting the common good.” That the Supreme Court sanctioned special-interest money as ‘free speech’ in political campaigns is an example of how far this has gone in the US. One does not need a law degree to see the inherent absurdity of seeing money as an expression of free speech. There is little doubt that big money has taken control of the US political system at the federal level and, with a few exceptions, at the level of individual states too. In 2016, just 158 households donated almost half of all comparing money raised in the US. It is fitting that caricatures of American politicians present them as if they were Formula One drivers – their suits covered in the stickers and badges of various corporations that sponsor them. Gaining and holding office without the support of big money is barely possible in the States today. In fact, the rich are taking over Congress, literally. In 2015, during Obama’s presidency, 50% of Congress were millionaires (the median household income in the US was about $56,000 at that time); the figures for Trump’s cabinet was greater still (their collective net worth was estimated in 2016 at $4.5 billion).

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Individualism: the US was the first country that elevated individualism to the level of the whole society. For the first time in history, individualism became the norm, rather than an exception. Its rise began in the fight for independence and continued, later on, to secure relative autonomy for individual states. The Cold War provided another impetus for individualism, but even after the fall of communism, it was encouraged further as a way to weaken the government and the state. However, as it is often the case, when a strength is pushed too far, it becomes a weakness. In the States, individualism has gone so far that it has become self-destructive. The individualism of pioneers and entrepreneurs has become regressive. The major consequence in politics has been the prevailing visceral weariness of the state and, especially at federal level, the government – the only entity that can, in fact, protect the rights of individuals. This has contributed to political and social fragmentation and to the rise of leaders such as Trump. As it is now, the US does not seem to have any mechanisms to restrain or transcend excessive individualism.

Investment: big money in the US started to think about politics as an investment fairly early. It soon became clear that investing in politics could be lucrative – you put in some money and get more back through, for example, tax-breaks (a common, but by no means only, way of getting hefty returns for spending on politics and politicians). This process has accelerated hugely since the 1980s, mainly through lobbying. Before the 1970s, lobbying was “a sporadic, tinpot, largely reactive activity”; few corporations placed lobbyists in Washington (Drutman, 2015, p.51). However, in a single decade, from the early seventies to the early eighties, the number of firms with lobbyists in Washington exploded fourteenfold, from 175 to a staggering 2,445 (ibid. p.57-58). By the 1990s, “corporate leaders increasingly came to see public policy as a way to improve their profits” (ibid., p.71). In 2015, American corporations spent a total of more than $3 billion on lobbying (ibid., p.8). Lee Drutman, author of The Business of America is Lobbying, suggests that “corporations have now fit their way into almost every process of American democratic policymaking” (ibid., p.3).

Consumerism: since Edward Bernays published his influential Propaganda in 1928, voters have increasingly been treated – and encouraged to think of themselves – as political consumers. Politicians are selling rather than telling. This has created market democracy, in which politicians and polices are just another commodity to be sold to people as any other product. As with most other advertising, market democracy is based on an appeal to one’s immediate impulses and desires. It moves from ‘what is best for us’ to ‘what is in it for me’ (and ‘if I can’t think of anything, I won’t even bother to vote’). However, for democracy and society to thrive, a delicate balance between ‘we’ and ‘I’ is necessary. Berggruen and Gardels warn: “…one-person-one-vote electoral democracy embedded in a consumer culture of immediate gratification is… headed for terminal political decay unless it reforms.” (2013, p.9)

Competition in politics has, by and large, replaced cooperation. Particularly since the 1980s, good-faith negotiation and compromise, and rewarding the skills of evidence-based persuasion – conditions for a democracy that serves all – have been replaced with what the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, demanded: “[political] war has to be fought with a scale and duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars”. In the 2000s, The Art of Political War, by radical right-winger David Horowitz, was disseminated among Republicans urging them to treat politics as warfare. The aim of politics was no longer to forge the best way forward for society through discussion and negotiation, but to wipe out one’s opposition (Lappé & Eichen, 2017, p.91).

Quantity or numbers have been increasingly prioritised over quality in politics (hence the appeal to the lowest common denominator). When engaging with the electorate, the quality of one’s political programme is now secondary by far. The priority is to get the right number of votes in the right number of places by any available means. As the infamous Cambridge Analytica case in 2018 demonstrated, IT technology and ‘big data’ are used for this purpose in ever-more sophisticated ways. This is further exasperated in a system in which votes are not equal. According to the presidential rankings of votes, while the voter power in Arizona is 207.05, it is only 0.37 in California. The system, de facto, penalises the voters in high turnout states. In the 2016 US Presidential election, Donald Trump didn’t bother to go to California, the most populous state in the country, even once. When widespread gerrymandering is added to this, it should come as no surprise that both the presidential and Senate elections are decided by a tiny fraction of the population.

All of this has consequences: in the mid-1960s, two-thirds of Americans believed that government was ‘run for the benefit of all the people’; by 2008, 70% saw government as ‘pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.’ Such cynicism leads to disengagement, which creates a vicious circle and undermines democracy and democratic institutions even further.

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Why this happened

Why were these factors allowed to get out of control and turn the American political system into, effectively, a plutocracy? There were many contributory factors – volumes could be written on this topic alone. Let’s consider here just those that are significant because they could not be easily avoided. One is the size (in terms of population and geography) of the US, the other its success. Neither of these challenges could have been accounted for by the founding fathers when they were drafting a new political system for a much smaller America of 13 former colonies. Let’s consider size first, which is often missed in writings on this subject.

By the end of the 18th century, the US had become the largest democracy in the world in terms of its physical size and population. Size mattered, because of the cost of running a political campaign (be it a presidential or party campaign). To rent a train in the 19th century in order to travel through such a big country and to engage with people required a lot of money. The appearance of radio, TV and other media may have reduced the importance of physical travel (although rallies still matter, even nowadays) but not the expense. In fact, the cost has increased so much that running for office has become prohibitive for anybody who is either not very rich themselves or doesn’t have the backing of rich donors (with the possible exception of the People’s Party that was funded by farmers in the 19th century). From this perspective, it is much easier for candidates in countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark to run campaigns – perhaps it is not unrelated that these countries became social democracies, far less influenced by big money. It quickly became obvious that the issue of campaign expenses needed to be addressed by providing some state funding and by imposing limits on individual donations. In the US, however, these initiatives have been insufficient and ineffective. For example, public financing has only been available to those who qualify to be Presidential candidates. Even this funding is refused by most serious candidates, as accepting it would mean having to agree to limit their spending, while those who decline public funding do not – giving them a huge advantage. Moreover, there are so many ways (particularly since 2010[1]) to get around limits to donations and funding campaigns that they have become practically pointless except for donations by individuals, and they form only a very small part of the total anyway. This is exacerbated by a lack of meaningful limits on political advertising and media coverage that would make the playing field more even. There have been some valiant attempts to change this situation, spearheaded by the Clean money, clean elections movement, but the dominant individualistic spirit resists such moves. After initial success in Arizona and Maine, the move to publicly fund elections has been defeated in several referendums (notably in California and Alaska). The same Supreme Court that opened the door to unlimited funding by big money declared key parts of most Clean Election laws “unconstitutional”.

The other significant factor was success. Politics could not catch up with the success of the new system, capitalism, which quickly created a class of very rich individuals whose backing politicians could hardly resist. To be fair, we need to take into account that many other battles had to be fought at the same time. For example, if you wanted to abolish slavery, you would gladly accept money from the industrial North (which favoured machines). It is not that politicians were not aware of the risk, but they needed to prioritise. All sorts of legislation that was supposed to restrict the influence of big money was implemented (and some is still in place), but especially since the 1980s such legislation has been eroded and what remains can be easily circumvented (e.g. by transmogrifying non-profit social welfare organisations into havens for ‘dark money’ from rich donors who remain anonymous). On the back of the mistrust of the federal government and the fear of communism, big money has managed to get its foot in the door, effectively enabling non-elected entities such as corporate lobbyists to take control of those who were democratically elected.

Even if the mixed system created by the founding fathers was the most advanced political system at that time, they (understandably) didn’t get it completely right – the balance between its components was not adequate for the changes that followed (e.g. an outdated electoral system or the selection process for Supreme Court judges). However, the reverence given to the original documents was so great that it prevented necessary amendments being made to adapt them to new circumstances. The Constitution is an example. Thomas Jefferson’s view was that constitutions normally run their course within about 20 years. Yet, since the US system is based upon the notion that the state itself is constrained by a body of pre-existing law that is sovereign, any thought of rewriting the Constitution is nearly anathema. Instead, it is interpreted in sometimes highly questionable ways, as in the case of money being an expression of free speech, or, infamously, in the case of the right to bear arms. The erosion of the political system was a relatively slow process though, until the 1980s, since when it has hugely accelerated, when the federal government was weakened and more or less taken over by big money. That it happened roughly at the same time as the US triumphed internationally with the collapse of the Soviet Union was not an accident. All nations need to evolve and adapt, but when one nation wins, it becomes an effective monopoly and loses motivation for further evolution and adaptation – instead, the country becomes conservative and just carries on doing more of the same. As neo-liberal doctrine took hold in the US shortly before the Soviet Union broke down, that was indeed ‘the end of history’ for the victors.

One may ask if this is the case, how is it that progressive individuals and organisations (such as Senator Bernie Sanders or environmental activists) can still operate and make themselves heard? There are several possible reasons: they may be tolerated in order to maintain the pretence of a well-functioning democracy; they may be needed in order to inoculate the population against ‘socialist’ ideas by limited exposure; and they can serve the purpose of gauging the pulse of the population, to see if these ‘progressives’ gather enough support for something to be done about it. In any case, most of them don’t matter much, and there are well-established ways to neutralise them if they do start to matter. There are professional companies that have the sole aim of defusing any activism, such as Stratfor (which swallowed up another such company, MBD) and the now-defunct Pagan International. The founder of MBD, Ronald Duchin, outlined a corresponding four-step strategy to deal with three activist subtypes: first, isolate the radicals; second, cultivate the idealists; third, educate them into becoming realists; finally, co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry. “If your industry can successfully bring about these relationships, the credibility of the radicals will be lost and opportunists can be counted on to share in the final policy solution,” Duchin concluded in one of his speeches.

It would be an exaggeration, though, to claim that big money has complete control. The states of Massachusetts and Hawaii are examples of resistance. This is possible because the corporate world is not united – as monopolies are not yet established everywhere, they still compete with each other; some industries depend, to some extent, on consumers so they are careful not to alienate them; and the corporate world does not have full control over the military (although about half of the US armed forces are already outsourced to private military contractors). Even more importantly, big money needs the current system and will not want to completely cut off the branch it is comfortably sitting on. Hence, democracy and democratic institutions need to be kept on the life-support machine, which results in big money not always having the upper hand, and losing a few battles, but not the war.

How come American citizens don’t seem to see through this and stand up against the erosion of democracy? Actually, a lot of them do and some are trying hard to make a difference. However, many feel powerless to act and are burdened with debt and so overworked that they have neither the time nor the energy to engage in fighting the system. Also, a large proportion of the population (often the biggest victims of this takeover) are still its greatest supporters. The concept of ‘system justification’ may explain this puzzling phenomenon: the more a person feels dependent, powerless and vulnerable, and at the mercy of a system over which they have little control, the more terrifying it is to think that the system is deeply flawed. And the more flawed a system, the more motivated people become to support and defend it (like Stockholm syndrome on a large scale). Awareness of the cracks in the system jeopardises the psychological sense of safety, meaning and connection, and causes cognitive dissonance – so if the cracks cannot be ignored, they are projected onto somebody or something else. This, of course, does not apply to everybody but it correlates with political ignorance and conservativism – both of which are in abundance in the US.

So, what can we learn from this example? From the successes of the American system, we can see that a mixed system has greater potential than any system based on a single concept. From its failures, we can learn that a political system is needed that provides a better balance of the various facets of governance and has the capacity to evolve: in other words, the system needs to keep adapting to the aims of social harmonisation and development, rather than the other way around. “Establishing capable institutions that embody both the perspective of the long term and common good in governance is key.” (Berggruen & Gardels, 2013, p.9)

[1] When the Supreme Court ruled that laws that prevented corporations and unions from using their funds for political advertising violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

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