If we reputedly we live in a democracy, then why are those in charge so out of touch with the needs of ordinary people? Ordinary people want jobs, but that appears to be the last thing that politicians in Washington are concerned about. Of course they claim just the opposite, but see what animates them. It sure isn’t jobs. Instead it’s tax breaks for the wealthy and ending abortion.
It might be because Congress has little in common with its constituents. For example, just one percent of Americans are millionaires, but 46 percent of Congress are millionaires. The problem got worse with the 2010 elections, which brought in a freshman class of senators with an average net worth of $4M each. It’s not impossible to get a seat in Congress and be of modest means, but it’s clear that it is very hard.
Running for Congress is not something you can squeeze into your evenings and weekends while you earn income at a full time job. Running for Congress is far more than a full time job. It consumes pretty much all the time you have, including a fair amount of your sleep. To even have a chance of winning against an incumbent, you need lots of money, so you spend most of your time not campaigning, but on the phone dialing for dollars or at fundraisers. So it really helps to be independently wealthy. If fundraising slacks off, you can always dip into your personal savings. But even many of the wealthy cannot self fund their own campaigns. Campaigns are so expensive they must seek out others with money.
For the most part, the rest of us are just trying to survive. If we have ambitions for running for political office, it might be for school board or dogcatcher, because that’s as high as we are likely to get. But even winning those kinds of elections still takes the ability to raise tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Which is why you quickly find that you must affiliate yourself with a political party. Hopefully there is some congruence between your beliefs and the political party you choose, because if you run then you will need to animate members of your party to campaign for you. Which means you will tune your message, at least in part, to what they want to hear. To win, it helps enormously if you become more partisan, not less.
It also helps if you fire up your base while other voters stay mired in apathy. You want those who would vote against you to feel disengaged and not vote at all. When voters overall are engaged, this results in close elections, reducing the likelihood that you will win. However, if you can fire up your base but those who would vote against you are more inclined toward apathy than to vote, the chances of winning rise dramatically. On the other hand, particularly during presidential election years when turnout tends to be higher, if you can align with the winning presidential candidate’s ideas and philosophies, you can profit from the coattail effect. This is great if it works, but is dangerous.
Once in office, while you could work on issues your constituents care about, for the most part they won’t be calling or writing, since they are busy. Those who will be calling and writing are more likely those with particular axes to grind. Don’t expect many visits from those lobbying to end muscular dystrophy. Instead, expect those fiercely animated about something to knock on your door instead. This will be a lot of gun nuts and antiabortion zealots. You will find your path to reelection so much easier if you accommodate them instead of having them as obstacles, so most in Congress do. Mostly those who will be calling will represent corporate interests. In fact, most of them you will know already, because they helped fund your campaign. They did so on the understanding that you were aligned with their business interests, so you need to keep voting for their bills.
Since Congress has become an oligarchy run principally to meet the needs of American corporations, American corporations in particular know a good thing when they see one. Power is exercised through proxies. They will sponsor you to the extent that you vote with their interests, and will quickly pull money and support if you dare deviate from it. With money of course comes the opportunity to leverage more power. This is done in various ways. It is done by setting up think tanks stuffed with eloquent people that will act as an echo chamber. It will be done through setting up shell political action committees that are purportedly average citizens, but in reality are corporate CEOs. Since those with money tend to control the airwaves and the presses, it also means the media must reflect a corporate message. Over time it means using your advantage to win more political power, not just in Congress, but also in the executive branch and, most importantly, in the Supreme Court, where power can be extended over decades unchecked. It is not coincidence that our conservative Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, in spite of the fact that this has nothing to do with original intent.
What does have something to do with original intent is limiting voting power to men with property. This was how republican government was understood in 1776, but it reflected a society where slaves and women were chattel, and those without property were often indentured servants. Who could vote was a matter for states to decide, and typically these were only male property owners. Some see virtues in this today, and it is expressed in a variety of policies that give one class more power at the expense of another. At one time it was accomplished through a poll tax. Now it is done by raising barriers to voting: making it harder to use absentee ballots, requiring students to come home to vote, voter ID laws and tightening the window between when you must be registered to vote in order to vote. Vote suppression is only illegal if you get caught, and if you do get caught it won’t invalidate the results of an election, so it’s worth a try. Election officials can always claim later they did not know they needed more voting booths in poor wards. Mistakes happen.
There are more insidious ways to maintain power, and unfortunately they are being played out now. The wealthy understand that money is power, which is partly why it doesn’t bother the Supreme Court at all to call corporations people. If money is power, then those with more money have more power. Hence, you want those with less money to have even less of it, and you to have more of it, so lower those capital gains taxes and keep taxes for the rich artificially low in general. The key to doing this is to make it virtually impossible for anyone poor to get a leg up. You want people to be poor, because this leaves them disenfranchised. You want public schools to fail, so you underfund them. You want more poor people, since it further reduces the cost of labor, so you find it convenient to be antiabortion. You also want the poor to die early, since they do not burden society by being unproductively unhealthy, so it doesn’t bother you if they cannot afford health insurance. You want the poor to have insurmountable obstacles to wealth. In short, the poor become tools that let you live a richer life. They are to be used with no thought or concern that they are actual human being with feelings.
What you don’t want are people who manage to escape the barriers put in front of them, most recently manifested by presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Lessons learned: they managed to escape their social class through Great Society programs like Food Stamps and scholarships for poor and minority students. Practical men of action like them, who root for the common man, are extremely dangerous. This explains not just the dislike, but the hatred and loathing against both Clinton and Obama. They escaped the many traps put in place to keep them down. So get rid of welfare, get rid of Food Stamps, get rid of scholarships, and get rid of anything that can address their inequity. Say it’s all about self-reliance and that anyone with enough gumption can surmount insurmountable hurdles. It’s part of the American myth and it’s part of how the oligarchy stays in charge.
In a future essay I hope to suggest what we can do about this.