A Democracy in Deep Disrepair

Sam Pizzigati

In contemporary American political life, only the rich can afford to be politically impatient. The big question: How long will the rest of us tolerate such a starkly unrepresentative status quo?

By Sam Pizzigati

Four score years ago, amid the tumult of the Great Depression, Americans rethought their democracy. Out of that rethinking came the New Deal — and a generation of steadily growing equality and prosperity.

Might our current Great Recession trigger another new epoch of rethinking? Annie Lowrey, an editor with America’s most influential foreign policy journal, hopes so — and she’s doing her part. If we Americans believe in representative government, a Lowrey column suggested earlier this month, why do we tolerate an institution as anti-democratic as the U.S. Senate?

Our Senate allocates votes strictly by state. America’s 21 smallest states currently hold just a tenth of the nation’s total population. Yet these states have enough Senate votes, between them, to prevent the passage of any legislation.

What would happen, Lowrey wonders, if we allocated senators by some other yardstick? Imagine, she asks, if our 100 senators represented income brackets and not states, “with two senators representing the poorest 2 percent of the electorate, two senators representing the richest 2 percent, and so on.”

If we allocated Senate votes that way, then 94 of our 100 senators would owe their election to Americans making under $100,000 a year.

In our current Senate, we have essentially the exact opposite. The vast majority of our senators owe their election to America’s most affluent.

Indeed, to reach the Senate today, you either have to be wealthy — two-thirds of our current senators have personal net worths over $1 million — or espouse an agenda that a significant number of wealthy contributors will find appealing.

And woe unto you should you turn, once in office, less appealing. The wealthy will turn the spigot off, as the Obama White House now seems to be learning.

Financial industry movers and shakers contributed $89 million to the Obama campaign in 2008. They have generally received a comfortable return on their investment. The Obama team, after entering the White House, followed down the same basic bank bailout path the Bush White House had blazed.

But team Obama has since strayed off that path, most recently by proposing a consumer financial protection agency, a new tax on big banks, and restrictions on the speculative trading that banking giants can do.

Top 20% wealth share

Bankers haven’t been amused. The political action committee at JPMorgan Chase, for instance, has just stopped contributing to the Democratic Party’s House and Senate campaign committees. Financial sector kingpins, the New York Times reported last week, “are warning Democrats” to lay off aggravating Wall Street — or risk forfeiting even greater banker backing.

“If the president doesn’t become a little more balanced and centrist in his approach,” as Kelly King, a banking CEO and a key player in high finance’s biggest lobby group, told the Times, “then he will likely lose that support.”

Threats as blatant as these — from the rich and powerful — remind us why Americans who care deeply about democracy have always worried about grand concentrations of private wealth. The richer the rich, after all, the easier they can buy access to elected officials.

Or office itself. In California, the Washington Post noted last week, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has already spent $39 million of her own money to win the state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination “and could spend $150 million or more by the election in November.”

But the debilitating impact of inequality on democracy, political scientists tell us, goes much deeper than the straightforward buying of access or office.

We normally judge the health of a democracy, for instance, by “how well government policies correspond with what citizens say they want,” as a special American Political Science Association task force on inequality and democracy observed a half-dozen years ago. The concentration of wealth in the pockets of a few can radically skew and distort this correspondence.

“If public opinion can be manipulated, and if the tools of opinion manipulation are most available to the wealthy and powerful,” as one task force paper explained, “the result may be a subtle, indirect, but pervasive kind of inequality in political influence.”

Add these subtle distortions to the structural “bias in the American political process” toward an inaction that privileges the status quo and you get, the political scientist inequality task force concluded, what we currently have: a political system “a great deal more responsive to the preferences of the rich.”

signupEvents since the Great Recession began have dramatized that responsiveness. The banks have been saved. But two million U.S. families still face foreclosure. Bank bonuses are flowing again. But jobless rates among low-income families, says a new report from the Center for Labor Market Studies, are running at 30 percent, a level as high as what the nation saw back in the Great Depression.

This new Center report also examines unemployment rates among high-income households, those that collected income over $150,000 in 2008. Their jobless rate in 2009’s last quarter: 3.2 percent.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.

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