America is not a democracy


The United States prides itself as the greatest experiment in democracy on the face of the Earth. It does have a few things to brag about: Its constitution is one of the finest examples of enlightenment thinking, rich with ideals of the sovereignty of the individual over institutions, and replete with checks against power. And its attendant values have produced the richest and most productive nation in history, one that sits among those countries with the cheapest interest rates, highest standards of living and wealthiest indigents in the world.

However, as engorged with the trappings of the American Dream as the average citizen is, whether they know it or not, there is evidence that in some significant ways the great American experiment has failed and is in need of a revolution, a rediscovery of its values, to right its course. These indications are symptomatic of one fundamental error in this experiment.

Money in politics

The singular issue that goes a long way to explaining the usual political gridlock and corruption that animates Washington is the abundance of money in the political system. It is why the United States ranks 37th for its ability to ensure health to its population [1] (pharmaceutical companies donate the most money to politicians to fix the laws to suit them), 14th in education [2] and has one of the highest murder rates among developed countries (which has more to do with the NRA donating to politicians than worship of the Second Amendment). Not to speak of gerrymandering and the Electoral College, money in politics is why most, if not all, Republican Congresspeople deny climate change (they are paid not to believe by Big Oil and related interests) and it’s why only one person was jailed in connection with the avoidable economic meltdown of 2007/8. It’s also why:

  • Popular opinion had little or no effect on public policy but donor and special-interest opinion had a 60% correlation with public policy between 1981 and 2002 [3];
  • The middle class paid more in taxes than the wealthy and corporations in the period 1952 to 2015, from 9.7% from social insurance and retirement and 32.1% from corporations, to 33.5% and 10.8% respectively [4]; and
  • While Americans’ productivity has been increasing steadily, their wages began to stagnate from the late 1970s, about the same time money started flooding into the political system (more on that later). The difference between those two lines on the graph is about USD12–14trn, money that was extracted—in fact, redistributed—from the middle class to the top. In simple terms, Americans are working more for less pay. [5]

How did money flood into politics?

Three decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States concretised and essentially legalised corruption in the political system: Buckley v. Valeo, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti and Citizens United v. FEC. You’ve probably heard of the latter 2010 case, which made famous appearances in many a Bernie Sanders speech. But, in the words of Cenk Uygur, a political commentator who also runs a political action committee (PAC) that aims to get money out of politics, that decision merely shot a dead horse; the damage was already done in 1976 and 1978 respectively. The sum effect of these three decisions is that:

  1. Corporations are natural persons entitled to the same rights as human beings are, including the right to freedom of speech;
  2. The act of donating money to political campaigns is a form of free speech since it evinces a political opinion (in essence money is speech), and because of (1), corporations have the right to give money in the political system; and
  3. The limits on many types of donations to political campaigns were lifted as this infringed on corporations’ freedom of expression.

How to get money out of politics?

There are numerous ways that have been proposed to drastically lessen the negative effects of large campaign contributions from corporations, super PACs, think thanks and the like pouring into elections.

People power

Grassroots campaigns that harness populist appeal to amass burgeoning war chests consisting of only small donations have proliferated, inspired by the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’ run for president in 2016. Although he ultimately lost, he outraised his primary opponent Hillary Clinton, who was funded by super PACs and large donations. However, it is still too early to determine whether small-dollar donations can rival big money, especially for Congressional and president races, which cost anything from tens of million of dollars to hundreds of millions. Nevertheless the people-power movement has gained momentum: almost half a dozen presidential candidates for 2020 have forsworn PAC donations, including Kamala Harris, who is among the most well known.

It should be recognised that getting ostensibly more accountable people that will vote in alignment with their constituents elected into power is just the first step. Many a politician has made promises they did not keep once they got their seat.

A constitutional amendment

The cases decisions that led to big money in politics were decided by the highest court in the United States. As the Supreme Court is the court of last resort, its judgments are final and cannot be appealed. But there is one thing above it: the United States Constitution. This is why organisations like Wolf-PAC, the one run by Uygur, are lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would solve this malaise once and for all. Wolf-PAC’s proposed language for that amendment would include resolutions that call for publicly financed elections and declare that money is not speech.

To amend the Constitution, a proposal for an amendment must be put forward at a national constitutional convention as stipulated by Article V of the Constitution, deliberated over, voted for by at least two-thirds of the states in the Union and then ratified by three-quarters of them.

There are two ways to trigger this convention: either two-thirds of Congress calls for such a convention or two-thirds of state legislatures do. Given that many politicians got to Congress through an arguably corrupt election system, they may prove reluctant to overturn a system that gave them power. That is why Wolf-PAC is going state by state.

Is there hope for democracy?

On many scores the US is an outlier compared against its European peers, despite its riches and vaunted freedoms. It scores poorly in health, education, crime, life expectancy and other areas. But it also shares some commonalities with these countries: a healthy tradition of press freedom, strong institutions, a moderately generous welfare system and, most important of all, like any democracy worthy of its name, the ability to self-correct. Public discourse is growing ever more critical of the corruption in Washington; more than 84% of Americans believe that money has too much influence in political campaigns [6].

Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has revealed a rage in the country toward the political establishment untapped by any of the polls leading up to 8 November. It’s left to be seen whether this rage will be doused by disillusionment as the radical change some in the public are seeking is forestalled or that rage is channelled into grassroots campaigns that elect more accountable representatives or scare establishment politicians into taking measures that will nurse American democracy back to life.


[1) World Health Report 2000

[2] The Learning Curve (2014) 

[3] Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

[4] US Treasury report

[5] The Productivity–Pay Gap

[6] Americans’ Views on Money in Politics

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One thought on “America is not a democracy

  1. Pingback: The case for optimisim – Dikgang Kekana

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