It is time for us to sit down for a bit of self-reflection. The question we need to ask – indeed, it is our duty to ask it – is what it means to be a democracy in the 21st century. What does it mean to have a government dependent upon the people? What is happening to the principles and values that we, as Americans, hold dear?
You don’t have to look far to see how democracy in America is starting to unravel. Congress is dysfunctional; its efforts to legislate are stymied by the tyranny of a minority that is unwilling to compromise. The Republican Party has morphed into an unsteady coalition, leaving the Democratic Party with a less-than-reliable negotiating partner that insists on spending much of its time passing bills to defund the Affordable Care Act (41, at the last count). Meanwhile, the Democrats are busy pointing fingers and holding press conferences.
If you head north of Capitol Hill, you’ll find evidence of more undemocratic behavior. Interest groups dominate the political foreground, distributing money to those representatives whom they believe will further their interests and threatening the re-election of representatives who dare to tread on their toes. Lobby firms are eager to apportion bigger salaries to individuals with political connections in the hopes of using those connections to promote and defend their interests. This distorts the income incentives inside the Beltway, encouraging Congressional staffers to leave their positions in favor of better paying jobs on K Street.
Many of the problems associated with the corruption in Washington can be attributed to our electoral laws, which subvert democratic principles by preventing ordinary citizens from having an equal say in their representation. The aggregate amount that an individual can spend in the course of each election cycle is a more than twice that of the median income. It is absurd to think that the average person would spend their entire income supporting a political party, figure, or cause in each two-year cycle. The cap almost exclusively affects those who have incomes significantly above the median. In practice, this means that those with the highest disposable incomes are the most capable of influencing elections. In 2012 only 0.4% of the population spent over $200 on elections, and a mere 0.08% of the population donated over $2,500 (OpenSecrets.org). The wealthier you are, the more you are able to influence the outcomes of elections. The constitutionality of the cap itself is being challenged in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which will be heard by the Supreme Court this month.
So, reader, what does it mean to be a democracy? In writing the Declaration of Independence, did Thomas Jefferson envision a country corrupted by the influence of money and power when he wrote of a government “instituted among Men, deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed?” Would he have approved of the undue influence exerted by the K street lobbyists? Could he have imagined that our political parties would become so polarized that Congress could not pass a spending bill to keep the government from shutting down?
The Declaration of Independence states that it is our right as Americans to “alter or abolish” the government when it strays from our fundamental democratic principles. Although I do not think abolishing the government is an appropriate (or desirable) solution, it is clear that we must act. As members of an intellectual community, it is our prerogative to raise awareness about the problem we face and to explore bold and creative solutions. We cannot hope to stop the corrupting influence of money in the political system unless we band together and demand a change of course. Each one of us can make a difference. We are the leaders, the doers, and the thinkers of our next generation.
If we don’t fight to save our democracy, who will?