The Disease of American Democracy

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Business for Democracy (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Public Citizen/Flickr)
Activists rally for a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on Friday, January 21, 2011, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Public Citizen/Flickr CC 2.0)

This post first appeared at Robert Reich’s blog.

Americans are sick of politics. Only 13 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, a near record low. The president’s approval ratings are also in the basement.

A large portion of the public doesn’t even bother voting. Only 57.5 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 presidential election.

Put simply, most Americans feel powerless, and assume the political game is fixed. So why bother?

A new study scheduled to be published in this fall by Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page confirms our worst suspicions.

Gilens and Page analyzed 1,799 policy issues in detail, determining the relative influence on them of economic elites, business groups, mass-based interest groups and average citizens.

Their conclusion: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Instead, lawmakers respond to the policy demands of wealthy individuals and monied business interests – those with the most lobbying prowess and deepest pockets to bankroll campaigns.

Before you’re tempted to say “duh,” wait a moment. Gilens’ and Page’s data come from the period 1981 to 2002. This was before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in Citizens United, prior to Super PACs, and before the Wall Street bailout.

So it’s likely to be even worse now.

But did the average citizen ever have much power? The eminent journalist and commentator Walter Lippman argued in his 1922 book “Public Opinion” that the broad public didn’t know or care about public policy. Its consent was “manufactured” by an elite that manipulated it. “It is no longer possible … to believe in the original dogma of democracy,” Lippman concluded.

Yet American democracy seemed robust compared to other nations that in the first half of the 20th century succumbed to communism or totalitarianism.

Political scientists after World War II hypothesized that even though the voices of individual Americans counted for little, most people belonged to a variety of interest groups and membership organizations – clubs, associations, political parties, unions – to which politicians were responsive.

“Interest-group pluralism,” as it was called, thereby channeled the views of individual citizens, and made American democracy function.

What’s more, the political power of big corporations and Wall Street was offset by the power of labor unions, farm cooperatives, retailers and smaller banks.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith approvingly dubbed it “countervailing power.” These alternative power centers ensured that America’s vast middle and working classes received a significant share of the gains from economic growth.

Starting in 1980, something profoundly changed. It wasn’t just that big corporations and wealthy individuals became more politically potent, as Gilens and Page document. It was also that other interest groups began to wither.

Grassroots membership organizations shrank because Americans had less time for them. As wages stagnated, most people had to devote more time to work in order to makes ends meet. That included the time of wives and mothers who began streaming into the paid workforce to prop up family incomes.

At the same time, union membership plunged because corporations began sending jobs abroad and fighting attempts to unionize. (Ronald Reagan helped legitimized these moves when he fired striking air traffic controllers.)

Other centers of countervailing power – retailers, farm cooperatives and local and regional banks – also lost ground to national discount chains, big agribusiness and Wall Street. Deregulation sealed their fates.

Meanwhile, political parties stopped representing the views of most constituents. As the costs of campaigns escalated, parties morphing from state and local membership organizations into national fund-raising machines.

We entered a vicious cycle in which political power became more concentrated in monied interests that used the power to their advantage – getting tax cuts, expanding tax loopholes, benefiting from corporate welfare and free-trade agreements, slicing safety nets, enacting anti-union legislation and reducing public investments.

These moves further concentrated economic gains at the top, while leaving out most of the rest of America.

No wonder Americans feel powerless. No surprise we’re sick of politics, and many of us aren’t even voting.

But if we give up on politics, we’re done for. Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The only way back toward a democracy and economy that work for the majority is for most of us to get politically active once again, becoming organized and mobilized.

We have to establish a new countervailing power.

The monied interests are doing what they do best – making money. The rest of us need to do what we can do best – use our voices, our vigor and our votes.

Robert B. Reich is the chancellor’s professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley and former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His new film, Inequality for All, was released last fall. You can follow him on Twitter at @RBReich.
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  • davidb123

    That’s what I call putting it a nutshell. There is little doubt money is now openly, and unapologetic in the influence it brings.
    The events in Missouri I believe have shone a light on a future that does allow even the most obvious consolidating of power to be stopped.
    Mr. Reich is correct in his statement, we have to establish a new countervailing power, but our eyes are wide open, and yet fear and silence has already darkened our future. the consequences are self evident!

  • moherb

    How the heck are you supposed to establish a countervailing power? Those with the power are ruthless.

  • JHitchcock

    It is time for all of us to stop pointing fingers at each other, and do something about it. The poor aren’t sucking up all your resources. Young scared foreign children aren’t coming to steal your jobs. Education isn’t failing because teachers are lazy, uncaring losers. You want to change things in this country?? Go to your kids PTA meetings. Donate your extra stuff to charity, and stop buying crap you don’t need. Volunteer at a local nonprofit that is working to make your community stronger. And for God’s sake, vote! Heck, don’t just vote, but get involved. Tell those people that represent you exactly how you feel about their politics & how that will effect your vote. Find candidates who’s values are in line with your and become a part of their campaigns. Can’t find any? Then become one yourself.

  • JonThomas

    I’m wondering how close Mr. Reich is to leaving the Democrat party.

  • Anonymous

    “The first duty of government is to protect the powerless from the powerful.” – Code of Hammurabi. Amazing how much has changed in the last 5,000 years.

  • Joan Harris

    Comprehensive study of how economics influenced our democracy throughout the twentieth century and how our government failed the middle class. Wow.

  • Rhonda Thissen

    Current events in Ferguson, MO provide a perfect example of what happens in communities when people don’t vote. About two-thirds of the residents of Ferguson are African American and only about 5 percent of that population votes in local elections. As a result, this majority-black community has a majority-white city council and a mostly white police force which has motivated much of the protest and problems there. How much worse do things need to get in this country before WE THE PEOPLE get active??

  • Anonymous

    “Yet American democracy seemed robust compared to other nations that in the
    first half of the 20th century succumbed to communism or
    totalitarianism.”
    >>>
    You mean, like when the Soviet bloc GAVE WOMEN THE RIGHT TO VOTE BEFORE MOST OTHER WESTERN COUNTRIES?

    Oh, and I suppose this “robust democracy” includes Jim Crow, circa 1876 – 1965? not to mention the “New Jim Crow” of the War on Drugs, mass incarceration and black disenfranchisement?

    Time and time again, liberals – especially white male liberals – keep harking back to a mythology of American exceptionalism that ultimately isn’t all that different from that of Teabagger conservatives.

  • Thomas Shea

    Yeah, that’s right. There’s nothing you can do. Just give up.

  • Anonymous

    “Only 13 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, a near record low” No doubt people say they’re upset in a poll, but how many of these same people will go and vote for their current rep? This disillusionment doesn’t seem to translate into any sort of change. My rep won 70% of the vote last time and he’s useless. (Issa).

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, this won’t happen. Too many people have more “important” things than this, like playing fantasy football or watching reality TV, or playing video games, or.. well I think the point is made.

  • 翔罗

    One problem is elected officials failing to pursue policies that favor the average American. Another problem is the average American not having the wisdom to know what policies favor themselves.

  • moherb

    Pretty nasty reply and with no suggestions of your own.

  • Solid Snake

    It’s in error for him to assume that unions and such are not “corruptible” themselves. The addition of unions doesn’t solve the fact that voting is meaningless. Why not dispel the illusion and just hand the reins over to the unions?

  • Anonymous

    we’re also tired of being told how tired we are.

  • Anonymous

    the reason why congress isn’t concerned about their low numbers is that while it is between 9-13% approval……the last I heard head lice had a higher approval rating…….about 90% of them get reelected. So they don’t have to care that we don’t like them.

    How do we get voters to get them out? One way is to vote, drag friends and family to the polls and make sure to vote in every election.

  • Anonymous

    The governments and courts of the US were purchased by big corporations and the very wealthy. Why are we surprised when they use it to their advantage?

    They used their purchase to make their criminal behavior illegal or to prevent their illegal behavior from being prosecuted. That’s why no one has gone to jail for the obvious frauds that have occurred in the past decades.

  • Anonymous

    The Koch brothers father was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society, which is nothing more than a kinder, gentler version of the KKK.

    Of course, much of the initial Koch family wealth was made through payments by the Communist Soviet Union for oil drilling equipment. So don’t let them (or any other big corporation) tell you how committed they are to free markets. They all are busy selling out to China, which is still run by the same Communist dictatorship they always were.

  • Anonymous

    Too many people are busy working multiple jobs in order to make enough to live on, while the people at the top continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right. The corporations own both parties. Obama turned out to be a center-right corporatist, while most Republicans are extreme-right wing corporatists.

    That’s just what the big corporations paid for with their armies of lobbyists and campaign contributions.

  • Anonymous

    Political manipulation defines what is of utmost important for some: abortion, gun rights, etc., to keep significant numbers polarized on a single issue. The second problem is the average American has yet to realize the option of writing in their own candidate, rather than the proposed candidate(s).

  • Anonymous

    And vote anti-incumbent.

  • Anonymous

    Do any of the candidates talk to the African American potential voters? Or anyone much else? I know local candidates rarely do out this way. Are the voters actively informed of their local governing? I know that just doesn’t happen out this way. Very hard to get any current info on policies and issues being decided, locally or state level.

  • 翔罗

    The onus is on us to be critical and discerning citizens that defy simple manipulation. One can hope.

  • Anonymous

    ??? Wikipedia attributes the concept of American exceptionalism as a neo-con creation. Where are you getting the idea it’s a liberal concept?

  • Anonymous

    I agree with that, but it does depend on who is running against them… some people made the mistake and ended up with the Tea Party……have to make sure good people run

  • Anonymous

    First, one has to realize they’re being manipulated, which is not innate but learned. Just had this conversation with my sister, regarding marketing. I’m not sure the highly emotive will ever figure that one out, manipulation.
    A friend said critical thinking must be taught. But, according to Briggs/Myers, that doesn’t mean even taught critical thinking will be used for decision making. Consider how often best practice is taught but not used. Know the right thing versus do the right thing.

  • Anonymous

    Polls said this time, disgust is even with person’s own representative. The real question is, what will they do in the voting booth. Habit, vote only for an R or D.

  • Anonymous

    “Grassroots membership organizations shrank because Americans had less time for them. As wages stagnated, most people had to devote more time to work in order to makes ends meet.”

    TIME baby…not just money baby. We don’t have the time to make our democracy thrive. But we’ve gotta make the freaking time for it.

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  • Anonymous

    What happens when your incumbent is to your liking, its the rest that you’re unhappy with?

  • Anonymous

    There aren’t many other potential voters in Ferguson. It’s like 70% black

  • Anonymous

    Less than 10% vote in my town. I

  • Anonymous

    just because neocons are the foremost promoters or even the supposed creators of it (which is not what the wikipedia entry says – dunno how you came to that interpretatio), doesn’t mean that liberals haven’t adopted it nor that they didn’t harbor a subconscious belief in it as well all along. there are countless liberals who remain proud of “jacksonian democracy” despite the massacres of natives carried out in the name of manifest destiny, just to name one set of examples.

  • Anonymous

    That’s how it’s been for decades, everyone thinks the problem is the “others”. But not this time. Most people recognize their own member is not representing them. Look up their actual votes, not what they tell you when they’re making the rounds at election time.

  • Anonymous

    There is no “hope” that will change that. Start talking, with those around you. So long as they only get information from one source, nothing will change.

  • Anonymous

    We need to start operating outside the R and D boxes. We need to nominate, webcast the candidate info, and write in. I think it’s too late, when a “primary” candidate has millions to campaign. You don’t have millions without “debt”, which is where we’re thrown under the bus when the elected get into office, repaying their “debt”.

  • Anonymous

    And you were expecting ??? from the members of the Church of If_I_Make_A_Buck_Its_The_Right_Thing_To_Do?

  • Anonymous

    “…our voices, our vigor and our votes”.
    And the sharpest knife of all, our fiscal votes. Every time you spend a dollar, you fund something good or something bad. Think before you spend.

    As for election vote, we need to dump the Rs and Ds, because they’ve dumped us. Which is so very transparent now.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to see your first sentence tattooed across every voters forehead for all to see…..and then just have it fade away after the election somehow, only to reappear before the next one.

  • Anonymous

    this is the time we should eliminate all parties R and D and let the person run on his name and what he stands for. Nothing else has worked!

  • 翔罗

    When I said “one can hope” I was attempting to express that I am simply not optimistic that the herd will ever give a damn. I was attempting to say that a society made up of curious, well-informed critical thinkers is an unlikely thing to ever happen. Obviously since we are talking on forums such as this, I am not just sitting on my hands “hoping” all day in the corner of my room.

  • Anonymous

    When I look up the hierarchy, I find the corruption overwhelming. I can’t believe how much has been gutted behind the closed doors. But when I look around, I see plenty of activity replacing the traditional. CSAs, 3D printing, movement to credit unions, loans from parents instead of banks, KickStarter, time banks, maker spaces, etc. Obama is starting myRA, available at the end of 2014. The principal is insured. Hopefully, people will stop funding Wall St with their 401Ks. And the bumper crop of baby boomer retirees will be pulling their funds out of 401Ks for their retirement.

    Don’t know how damaged the public will be by the time the 1% turns on themselves.