- Dan Connors
$150 per vote- why money is ruining elections, and why democracy must prevail.
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
The 2022 US midterm election, to no one's surprise, will be the most expensive in history. Approximately $16.7 Billion dollars will be spent this year on supporting or opposing candidates, more than the entire GDP of Jamaica. That works out to about $150 per voter, spent mostly on deceptive and misleading advertising that floods our media from January to November every two years. (For comparison's sake, Canadians spent about $28 per voter in their last election in 2021). Think of all the good things that could have been built with that much money.
And what do we get for that $16.7 Billion? A broken, divided system that can't get much done thanks to gerrymandering and the filibuster. Approval ratings for congress have run around 20% for the past decade, when both parties were in power at one time or another. Presidential approval ratings have sunk under both Republicans and Democrats, rarely rising above 50% except when a war breaks out. And now even the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be non-partisan and independent, has sunk to a 25% approval rating because of the power plays that have made it a nakedly ideological court run by conservatives.
The sad answer to our democratic problems is that here, as in most of the world, money rules and the people have increasingly less say about what goes on. The US is now essentially a plutocracy, because the wealthy have taken over the system from state houses to the US congress. Money talks, and when billionaires want to get a hold of leaders, all they have to do is pick up their phone. In my state there are no more town hall meetings where representatives come to listen to ordinary citizens. You can still write to them, and get a lovely form letter back explaining why they don't want to do anything right now about your concerns. Or you can call their offices and talk to some young staffer who will log your concern maybe, while only the big contributors get to talk to the representative in person. (I'm sure there are exceptions to this somewhere, but I haven't seen it in my area.)
Today's senators and representatives spend more time and energy raising money than actual legislation. Not only are they able to do the jobs that they were elected for, but they are reminded constantly that they have to please the donor class above the voters in order to stay in office. And the few laws that do get passed are written by staffers and lobbyists, rarely even read by the congresspeople that vote on them.
An attempt to reform the problem of money in politics was made in 2002 with the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that limited donations to political campaigns. Those reforms didn't last long, as the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United case opened the doors to unlimited corporate contributions to Super-PACS, or political action committees that can spend money in support of candidates on their own without coordinating with the actual campaign.
Since Citizens United, dark money has flowed into politics with the extra added bonus of no one having to report where it's coming from. Individuals can still donate up to $2,900 per political candidate under the rules, and there are many other options for wealthy donors to fund committees and parties that will make their presence known in Washington and various state houses. (FYI- the biggest donations come from the finance and healthcare sector in hopes of influencing bills regarding their industries.) Small individual donors can sometimes make a difference, but as big money contributions get bigger, small donors are left with nothing but constant pleading emails and texts for more and more donations.
This brings me to my biggest question about wealth and politics.
Why do the richest 1% control democracies when they are obviously outnumbered by the poorest 99%?
This is a question that vexes fans of democratic rule, and it's only getting more obvious that the system is increasingly rigged in favor of the wealthy. I can think of only two frustrating answers.
1- Divide and conquer works all too well. Humans are tribal creatures, and those tribes can be constantly turned against each other over trivial issues. Race has been used to force political solidarity when one race is demonized over another. Culture wars are currently in vogue, using gender and lifestyle differences to create tribal allegiances that become voting alliances. Finding bad guys to blame everything on- Russians, Muslims, Mexicans, Gays, Feminists, or anybody else deemed an "other", is much easier than facing complex problems and changing things.
2- Most people want to associate with winners. The rich are seen as winners. Most people want to be rich themselves, and the lure of the dream of making it on your own is a powerful one. Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luck or skills to make it big, and we end up needing help from others to get through life. This is portrayed as weakness. Facing the reality of being middle class or poor forever is too hard for many to acknowledge, so they side with the rich team, even if they'll never truly belong to that club. The calculus has also helped that the middle class could gradually increase their standard of living thanks to the trickle down effect, but that's changing. Young people are seeing that their chances of even meeting their parent's status is slipping away, and that will make it harder for the rich to use this strategy.
This democracy stuff can be very depressing when it goes bad, as we've seen in 2022. Tribalism and polarization are making people question whether the votes are even being counted correctly. Money in politics has produced nasty, divisive political ads that throw smoke all over the process but don't offer positive solutions for the future. Fear, disinformation, and anxiety about the economy are influencing people's votes more than positive visions, respect for democracy, or concrete proposals to fix our many problems.
In the short term, I feel pessimistic about the situation. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I hope I'm wrong. But in the long term, I'm optimistic that democracy will survive and diverse voices will be heard loud and clear. Why? Because autocracy doesn't work and never has. The grand theory behind autocratic rule is that there is a ruling class of all-knowing, superior people and they are the ones who are most suited to be in charge. History shows us that most of these all-knowing. divinely inspired leaders got lost in their own huge egos and defaulted to corruption and mediocrity. The Great Leap Forward in China led to over 50 million deaths because the leaders wouldn't listen to the people. Hitler was the 20th century's ultimate authoritarian, and his reign ended up in failure and unheard of suffering. Putin's Russia is imploding because his autocratic decision to wipe out Ukraine may eventually destroy both countries.
Strong leaders can emerge and gain power for a while, but they always get overconfident and unprepared to lead the system that they are trying to control. The world moves far too fast and changes too much for any one man or group of men to control it or even understand it. They always fail. Sooner or later the people toss them out, or they walk away in shame and denial.
The only solution for the world going forward is messy, confounding Democracy. Only by melding thousands of voices and viewpoints can nations find a healthy consensus and direction. There is a place for leaders, but only for those who listen to diverse voices and come up with creative solutions that don't leave anybody out. Those many voices out there can find the weaknesses and blind spots much better than any emperor or king ever could. It may take longer to find answers, and those answers will depend on compromises, but democracies will be the ones that find the best ones. They are the future.