Part 1: Dispelling Some Myths
To start off this blog and perhaps as a means of setting the tone, let us dispel a few myths that many hold about US politics.
1.1. America is not a democracy
On paper, strictly speaking, the US is a constitutional republic. The distinction lies in the mechanism by which laws are passed. In a literal democracy the mechanism rests directly through the people by a majority vote, whereas in a constitutional republic laws are passed by a small group of citizens who are elected to vote on behalf of the people.
Let us not, however, dwell on literal semantics and address whether the US is a democracy in the sense that the majority of us understand. Does the US government serve the will of the majority of its people? Are laws passed in the US according to the needs of its people? Are elections free and fair? Are electoral candidates appropriate representatives of the American people?
The answer to all of these is no. Broadly speaking, the general electorate does not play a role in the outcome of elections or in the formation of public policy.
Who forms public policy?
A study in 2014 by Gilens & Page investigated almost 2000 (1779) public opinion surveys and compared what the people wanted to what the government actually did. They found that the bottom 90% of income earners in the US had a “statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”, and concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
In other words, the needs and wishes of 90% of the public play no role in the construction or reformation of laws in the US. Instead, legislation moves to favour the desires of the highest income earners exclusively and is crafted by lobbyists and industry representatives. Members of the general public do not share this privileged position, the vast majority of whom will never meet their “representative” or have an opportunity to have their voices heard. On average, there are nearly 600,000 US residents per House and Senate member at the national level constituency, and over half of the Congress and two-thirds of the Senate are millionaires.
By comparison, consider whether the information below illustrates a legislative assembly that represents the general public:
Median net worth of US Senators ~ $1.1M (as of 2016);
Median net worth of US Representatives ~ $460K (as of 2014);
Median net worth of US citizens ~ $85K (as of 2013).
With the majority of the law-makers belonging to the top 1%, it is hardly surprising that they would continuously pass legislation that exclusively benefits that tiny subset of the population.
How free and fair are elections?
While the presidential elections that are held every four years attract the most attention, there are elections in the US every November. Those held in the second year after the presidential are called mid-term elections, and those held on the other years are called off-year elections. For example, November 2017 was an off-year election and mid-term elections will be held in November 2018. Quite often, the House or Senate will “flip” during a mid-term, such as in 2006 when the Democrats claimed the House and in 2010 when the Republicans re-claimed it. Each year, Local, State and Federal elections can be held for any office (and remember that some offices such as District Attorney are claimed via elections), and citizens can also put so-called ballot measures into elections where they can vote on particular issues locally that are of interest to them. A notable example of this was the legalisation of marijuana for recreational usage in the states of Colorado and Washington, despite the fact that it is still illegal at the federal level.
While these all look like the mechanisms of a healthy democracy in theory, the practice is quite the opposite. With only a few rare exceptions, in reality, US elections are just for show. This will be explained in more detail as this blog progresses, but below is a list of factors that make a mockery of the word “election”:
(1) Voting is selective (voters are discouraged from voting because an absence of votes favours the incumbent or most rightwing (usually they are the same thing));
(2) There is no preferential voting (creating a heavy bias towards the major parties);
(3) Incumbents write the laws governing how to vote (excluding certain types of ID or removing citizens from the voting roles);
(4) Incumbents have the authority to re-draw voting districts (creating a problem with gerrymandering);
(5) The parties choose their candidates for primary elections (circumventing the open general elections);
(6) Any entity can spend any amount of dark money on any election campaign, including ballot measures (which effectively legalises bribery);
(7) The police force is militarised and violently crushes opposition and protests with impunity.
It makes little difference to the big picture whether the Democrats or Republicans win office. The chances are that your “elected representative” will be a member of the elite 1% of the wealthiest Americans and they will exclusively serve the interests of their kin, including the large multinational corporations. Elections are put on mostly for show, and really only fill the coffers of the Party advisors and television corporations. It is worth noting that $2.4 billion was spent on the 2016 presidential elections alone, and that does not include that spent on the House and Senate races that year which came to around $6.5 billion.
Former US president Jimmy Carter put it perfectly at an Atlantik Bruecke event in July 2013: “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.”