Well, it’s is now official. Liberal democracy as we knew it is no more. Or, as Nietzsche might put it, democracy is dead. And how do I know this, you ask? I know because of an April 9 report by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens, and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” that tells me the majority does not rule in the United States. Well, I was shocked, shocked I tell you.
Although the authors don’t specifically use the term, some reviewers have opined that the conclusions in the report seem to fit the definition of an oligarchy — a form of government in which power rests with a small number of people. However, since the Supreme Court’s decision in the McCutcheon case striking down the aggregate limits on contributions to political candidates, I personally thought that we had gone from a representative democracy to an unrepresentative plutocracy. Oligarchy or plutocracy, it’s not a Democracy; the latter term being derived from the Latin “demos – the people” + -“kratia – power, rule,” meaning “people rule.”
Gilens and Page comment that,
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.“
In other words, it’s tyranny by the minority.
Of course, anyone who follows politics in this country knows intuitively that our system of governance has been in trouble for several decades – that there are a few at the top who get the mine, while the rest of us get the shaft.
The latest Gallop poll shows that Congress has a 13% approval rating. That’s better than the all time low 9% it got in November, 2013, but it’s still an F minus. The founders set up a bicameral Congress to represent all the people and thus be the engine of democracy. But the evolution of the two political parties with their absurd gerrymandering, along with an almost obsessive appetite for the accumulation of wealth, have helped to grind the democratic process almost to a halt.
In a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, “The People’s Agenda: America’s Priorities and Outlook for 2014,” Americans expressed significant concerns in the government’s ability to solve the problems they see as important. The report states,
“Large majorities are only slightly confident or not at all confident that the government can make real progress on the most commonly mentioned issues, including 69 percent for health care reform, 64 percent for unemployment and jobs, 67 percent for the economy, 85 percent for the budget and national debt, 75 percent for immigration, 63 percent for education, 82 percent for taxes, 70 percent for foreign policy, and 74 percent for the environment and climate change. Averaging across the entire range of problems mentioned, 76 percent of Americans report low levels of confidence that the government will make real progress toward solutions to those problems.”
All of this lack of confidence in our elected officials, along with the embarrassingly high disapproval rating of Congress, and yet we still reelect incumbents 90 to 95 percent of the time. The definition of insanity comes to mind – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result every time. Like the House of Representatives voting 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act knowing all the time that it will never pass.
As John Adams, our second president, and one of the few who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, cautioned us,
“Democracy… while it lasts, is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
At the end of the Princeton/Northwestern report, the authors offer a minor retraction, seemingly with tongue planted firmly in cheek:
“Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does,” Gilens and Page write. “Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.
“But we tend to doubt it.”
This is an expanded version of an Op-Ed that appeared in the Joplin Globe on May 6, 2014