Presidents’ Day — that third Monday of February when Americans celebrate the federalist grandeur of Washington, Lincoln, and the other two men carved on the side of Mount Rushmore (Google them yourselves), all while trying to catch a last-minute furniture sale. It seems an apt holiday to reflect on the democratic institutions these men represented and fought for, as well as that tangy capitalistic allure that is has been born of.
Short of using necromancy to disinter Washington’s dead corpse for much needed answers, it is clear that sound guidance to maintain the fundamental principles of a multi-party representative democracy envisioned by the American forefathers is today absence — as ineffable as a coupon with a smudged expiration date.
When the 13 colonies led by General George Washington split from Great Britain, independence was declared as an assault against the tyranny of an unrepresentative monarchy that sustained power through heredity, wealth and business influence. In 2016, the US could very well make a 360-degree turn back to such governance.
If Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush go head-to-head in 2016 for the top spot as 45th president of the United States, then our capitalistic democracy will have succeeded in limiting the public’s choice to one of two political dynasties, perpetuated and protected by wealthy donors that are undeniably a product of rising inequality. The US would become a democracy only by name, a lofty standard used to guise the plutocratic constructs that currently dominate our electoral process.
What is a plutocracy? Webster defines it as a “a country that is ruled by the richest people.” In the US, where 94 percent of the biggest House race spenders, and 82 percent of the biggest Senate race spenders win seats, its not outlandish to say that we are already a society that is governed by the wills of the monied class.
According to the very insightful data and news site, Vox, our penchant for involving money in politics has begun to mirror society’s inequality: About 0.26 percent of the population gives 68 percent of the country’s political donations.
And this isn’t just a disease of DC. Money’s warping powers have permeated to even the most remote slices of the US. During my recent 7,000-mile road trip across the US, I met a city councilman for Muskogee, Oklahoma. The cheerily rotund man had won his seat, but not without learning the tacit reciprocal contract that money represents — that “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” Vito Corleone mentality.
“The local fire department gave me a donation, but I told them, ‘No, thank you.’ I don’t want your money. However, they insisted that I take it or they would not pledge their support. This was after many meetings with the whole department in which they had already said, ‘Yes, you are our guy.’ It really taught me the position that money has in politics, even in Muskogee.”
As we stand today, half the country stuck in a white out of snow, wistfully wishing that they could go to that furniture sale, the Clinton and Bush dynasties look primed to fulfill this plutocratic prophesy. Thanks to recent NBC/Marist polls (the latter, ahem, being my alma mater), Clinton currently holds a “substantial lead” while Bush is tied with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for the Republican nomination.
While the trauma of recognizing the abhorrent power of money in our government is regretful, I find the state of political polarization just as corrosive to the ideals of Washington and the other Mountain Faces. What’s more, the gravity of the two political ideologies have grown to such a critical mass that the money, in its eternal conquest to find the most profitable pockets of influence, has become polarized as well. (see chart to the left)
For all the magnetic weight of money, however, the US’s political parties aren’t as distinct as American media leads us to believe; beyond fundamental disagreements in economic theory (demand-side vs. supply-side economics), social rights laws, and their choice of color and animal, there are many crossover views between the parties.
If you look at Clinton’s and Bush’s stance on other critical issues, care of ontheissues.org, their platforms become hard to discern. If elected, they would both likely have aggressive foreign policies, with Clinton seeing China as “neither friend nor foe” and Bush considering leading from behind “so odd.” (Some key differences, though: Clinton would pose an Amazonian threat to the misogynistic monarchs of the Middle East; Bush would renege on the the Cuban rapprochement.)
Both recognize and support the energy security revolution that fracking has created. Both precisely pronounce the value of diversity that immigration brings to the US, and that “rational sympathy” should be employed rather than callous “economic logic”.
A lot of the complaining that dresses up US political commentary today is a product of our love for entertainment. Americans love to hear drama in politics. So do the Brits. (Why else would you be reading this?) But this whirlwind of nonconstructive criticism has clouded the reality — lobbying and high-net worth donors are now controlling politics, not the people.