George Scialabba: Democracy vs Plutocracy

George Scialabba: Democracy vs Plutocracy
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The United States is a plutocracy. The climate is at stake. Will this election make a difference?

The United States is widely believed to be a democracy. Unfortunately, it is not. In a democracy, elected representatives are broadly accountable to and controllable by their constituents, not merely by means of a biennial or quadrennial voting ritual but through regular channels of information and discussion, which communication technology is making ever more feasible. 

In the United States, however, the general population has very little influence over its government. Six years ago, two American political scientists studied the correlation between policy preferences, policy outcomes, and income levels, concluding that “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States,” while the “ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily — though not exclusively — business.” 

In other words, the United States is a plutocracy.

This will hardly be news to anyone who has paid attention to American politics since Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington in 1980 and began energetically to undermine the New Deal, the foundation of American prosperity and fairness in the decades after World War II. Most Republican presidents since 1980, including Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, have enacted giant tax cuts for the very rich while trying to cut or privatize Social Security and unemployment benefits, destroy the bargaining power of labor unions, and resist popular pressure for universal health care and free higher education.

A fixed game

Why, then, do a majority of Americans vote Republican? They don’t. In the last decade, the majority of votes cast on both the state and national level — including the 2016 presidential election — were for Democrats. The United States has an archaic electoral system, which has awarded the presidency twice in the last twenty years to the candidate with fewer votes, both times Republicans (George W. Bush and Trump). 

This system assigns the same weight to one Wyoming voter as to 57 California voters. Because the U.S. Constitution is absurdly difficult to amend, and because the small states, mostly Republican, have always refused to give up their unfair electoral advantage, unrepresentative government at the level of President and the Senate is entrenched. 

The House of Representatives and the state legislatures are chosen by election district. Manipulating the composition of these districts to ensure disproportionate advantage — a practice called “gerrymandering” — has traditionally been indulged in by whichever party was in a position to do so. But in 2010, Republicans hired teams of computer consultants to take this skullduggery to an entirely new level. Aided by their control of the district drawing process in many states, Republicans won the House of Representatives in 2012 when they were the minority party vote-wise, and have punched above their weight in subsequent House elections, winning more seats than their vote share would suggest. 

Who votes for Republicans?

Many non-rich people do, of course, vote Republican — around 50 million of them — and their motivations vary widely. Perhaps the largest segment is evangelical Christians, who support Trump because he has promised to promote, through his judicial appointments, religious freedom (usually meaning a narrow interpretation of the First Amendment) and restrictions on abortion. Others, particularly in the South, have never forgiven the Democratic Party for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Others, reasonably enough, dislike the neoliberalism of Obama and the Clintons: “free trade” agreements facilitating capital flows and the outsourcing of jobs; financial and other kinds of deregulation; and privatization — though Congressional Republicans supported these things too. Still others generically dislike “Washington” and the federal government, often managing to forget that this is where their Social Security checks and Medicare coverage come from.  

The main strength of the Republican electorate is that a high percentage of them actually vote. There are many more Democrats, but a higher percentage of the latter don’t vote. Partly this is because they are younger and more footloose; possibly also because they are less likely to get off work to vote. (In the United States, Election Day is a workday, a time-tested bipartisan means of suppressing the vote.) 

There is another reason: targeted Republican voter-suppression efforts. These include restrictive registration rules, closing polling stations in Democratic areas, purging voter rolls, not making available or not counting mail ballots, and more. This is expected to have a serious impact on elections across the board in 2020. 

Democratic counter-efforts are circumscribed both by a lack of money and a lack of zeal — the Democratic Party apparatus appears to be even more concerned with retaining control of the party than with winning elections. In addition, Republican-appointed judges, all the way up to the Supreme Court, have been notably unenthusiastic about protecting voters’ (and workers’ and consumers’) rights.

Our fragile planet at stake

Of course, all the malign consequences of Trump’s and  Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s fanatical devotion to further enriching the already rich pale into insignificance compared with the damage we have all conspired to wreak by emitting carbon. The proportion of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has rocketed into the danger zone. The floods in Kerala and Bangladesh, the wildfires in California and Australia, the droughts in Syria and Sudan, the melting of polar ice, the thawing of the Arctic permafrost, the bleaching of half the world’s coral reefs — these are the first symptoms of our planet’s death. 

It is far from certain that this death spiral can be arrested. Trump has done his best over the last four years to accelerate it, rolling back environmental protections, silencing or firing government scientists, aggressively promoting drilling for oil and gas. Another four years of these policies may be fatal, especially combined with the reckless destruction of the Amazon rainforest — the world’s lungs — by Trump’s admirer, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.

Joe Biden is a sensible and decent man, though, like Obama, not a courageous one. If he is elected with large majorities in the Senate and House, he will invest in renewable energy on a large scale, rejoin the Paris Accords, and enforce emission standards. And the Republicans will fight him every step of the way. Why? Because these measures may make the richest Americans — Charles Koch and the Exxon Corporation, in particular — a little less rich. 

Like many other Americans, I can see the justice of raising living standards in the impoverished world, even if those of us in the rich world must tighten our belts, carbon-wise. Half a billion new refrigerators and air conditioners in India and China may add a fraction of a degree to the average global temperature. So be it. 

But the profits of the energy industry are another matter. That our beautiful and fragile world may be mortally wounded merely because a few thousand American plutocrats and corporations have bought themselves a wholly unscrupulous gang of operatives, who have established a choke-hold on American politics — this is almost too terrible to contemplate.


READ NEXT: How Trump and Biden Differ on Taiwan

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.






Tags: