Sorry to say, but the U.S. is not a democracy anymore. You may be thinking, Kim, who the heck are you to make such a dastardly accusation about this great country of ours?! OK, you have a point there. I’m no political smarty-pants expert, and if you want a second opinion about this ‘not a democracy’ thing, here’s a link to a 2013 Princeton University study by a couple of guys that have a lot more expertise than the likes of me.
Anyway, assuming you’re still with me, I’ll explain why our government is–by actual definition–no longer a democracy. While it still has the trappings of a democracy, it has now devolved into a plutocracy.
Democracy vs Plutocracy
Democracy — a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
Plutocracy — a system of government that is governed by the wealthy few, sometimes referred to as an Oligarchy
How the US Left Democracy Behind
To be sure, our democracy has never been one-person-one-vote. What about women? What about African-Americans? Much water flowed under the bridge before they had the vote. And, then, there’s the good old Electoral College. It has always given more weight to votes cast in the South and other rural states than in more urban, more populated states. Why do you think the original slave states insisted that the Electoral College be built into our Constitution?
However, in the 200 or so years since the signing of our Constitution in 1787, the U.S. progressively allowed more Americans to participate in our democracy and vote. But since the 1990 Census, partisan gerrymandering made segments of voters in many Congressional districts irrelevant to the outcomes of elections. Other partisan tactics like voter suppression have reduced voter participation, particularly among the young, the elderly, the poor, and minorities.
These manipulations of our democracy, which favor some people over others, have consequences. In 2000, the Supreme Court put George W into the White House despite Al Gore winning the popular election by over half a million votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won almost three million votes more than Trump. I don’t have to tell you who’s sitting in the White House today.
Currently only 24% of Americans approve of the recent tax plan, yet it was voted into law by the very people who were elected to represent the will of the people. About 90% of Americans support background checks for all gun sales, 62% want universal health care, and 62% oppose construction of a US border wall. If the United States were a true democracy, representing the will of the people, we would have a different tax plan, one that does not favor corporations and the super-rich, we’d enjoy universal health care, background checks for gun sales wouldn’t have gaping loopholes, and our “democratic” representatives would never agree to spending billions of dollars on a border wall that the majority of Americans don’t want.
It appears that democracy has wiggled away from us.
Not a Democracy, but Is It a Plutocracy?
Campaign funding by people with money has always undermined our democracy. But the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates. Having won their elections with funding by the wealthy, officials pay off their funders with legislation.
Here’s an example of how this works: The recent tax bill passed by Congress will ultimately take away health care for millions of our poorest citizens. Within a few years, it will take money from the pockets of 99% of us while giving billions of dollars of tax benefits to the corporations and the wealthy 1%. Less than two weeks after pushing this tax bill through Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan was given nearly $500,000 in campaign contributions by billionaire, Charles Koch, owner of Koch Industries, the second largest privately-owned corporation in the US. In other countries, this is known as bribery. In a plutocracy, it’s business as usual.
Corporations are experiencing record profits, but make little or no improvements in pay for the employees who work all day to help create the profit. Income inequality is growing, and the Middle Class is shrinking. Our Republican-controlled Congress fights every attempt to raise the minimum wage to a level that supports a family. In a democracy, our elected representatives would enact laws that benefit the majority of the people they represent. In a plutocracy, our elected representatives enact laws that benefit corporations and the 1%.
We’ve Been Here Before
This is not the first time that plutocracy has overtaken us. The period around 1900 was called the “Age of the Robber Barons” for a reason. We were in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Just as now, new technologies and new mass markets were generating huge wealth. And just as now, the wealth was not shared with the workers who helped to create it. Instead, it was funneled into the hands of the already wealthy few. Owners of railroads, factories, and mines were raking in fortunes. Many used their fortunes to fund election campaigns and, even more blatantly than now, to offer outright bribes.
The government came to serve the interests of the owners of corporations and conglomerations of corporations, which at the time were called “trusts.”
The story of how we snatched our democracy back from the plutocrats is too long to cover here. But the short version is that people got upset, and they educated themselves about what was going on. Then, they voted for progressive politicians who changed the rules of the game so that ordinary Americans could again have influence. After all, dollars don’t vote. They only pay for propaganda to influence the people who do vote.
We can do the same thing now. Want to help? OK, get informed about what is happening and then … Vote! Vote every chance you get, and encourage everyone you know to vote. Don’t think for a minute that your vote doesn’t count. If 537 more Democrats in Florida had bothered to vote, Al Gore would have won. If 80,000 Democrats in three states had bothered to vote, Trump wouldn’t have won. If you want your democracy back, then vote! That’s what people do in a democracy, right?
By Kim and Alexandra Hopkins