How Our Democracy Got Vetoed—And How To Fix It
America’s economic elite call the shots in Washington, and until we fix that, real change will remain illusory.
Political campaigns have a fairly familiar rhythm: speak to the issues the people care about, and you rally those people to your side. If you’re lucky, like Bernie Sanders, the positions that attract crowds now are the positions you’ve always held. If you’re not that lucky, you’ve got to find a way to “evolve” to the positions that excite the people, at least if you want to win.
When a democracy is working, this dynamic is just fine. It’s what produces change in government; it’s what drives people to participate.
But what happens when a democracy stops working? What happens when there’s no connection between what the people want and what the government actually does? Does that change the ideal strategy for a campaign?
Because that’s the place we are in right now. People have strong desires for our government to act. But our government does not act in response to those desires.
We’ve entered the age of the “veto-ocracy,” as political scientist Francis Fukuyama describes it, when small numbers of concentrated interests have the power to block change.
Eighty-nine percent of Americans (including 84 percent of gun owners) supported new background checks after 27 people (including 20 children) were murdered at Sandy Hook. Congress did nothing.
For more than a decade, the vast majority of Americans have believed that climate change is happening. Congress has done nothing.
Americans overwhelmingly supported Obamacare as originally promised—with a public option. But even with a majority in both houses of Congress, the administration had to cave to the insurance interests that threatened to spend millions to defeat Democrats. Again and again, there is “what the people want” and “what our government does.” Those two “what’s” are not the same.
These, of course, are just anecdotes. But the data supports what these examples suggest. As Martin Gilens and Ben Page have shown, in perhaps the largest empirical study of the actual decisions by our government in the history of political science,
When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
Not so with the “economic elite”: Their data show a strong relation between the preferences of the elite and what our government does. Not so with organized interest groups: Again, their data show a strong relation between their preferences and what our government does. But between the average voter and our government, there is no “statistically significant impact on public policy.”
In a democracy, this fact ought to matter. It ought to be noticed by more than political scientists. But there’s an obvious reason why the politicians can’t press this critical fact: It negates the rhythm of a campaign.
Campaigns are about “yes we can.” Actually, you know, we can’t, at least until we fix this broken democracy doesn’t fit the ordinary stump speech. However true it may be, politicians can’t talk about it. Because if they talk about it, they won’t win.
This was the thought I came back to again and again as I listened to the extraordinary speeches of Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders this weekend at the New Hampshire Democratic Convention. (Lincoln Chaffee spoke too, but his speech was more about him than about the issues.)
Again and again, the candidates spoke to the issues that they knew would rally the troops. Clinton promised to close the “loophole” that lets some of the richest Americans (hedge fund managers) pay among the lowest income tax rates. She promised to pass a pay equity act, and raise the minimum wage. O’Malley had 15 issues that he said he had identified as the “priorities” of his campaign—everything from renewable energy to expanding Social Security. And Bernie Sanders electrified the audience with a litany of changes that he promised his “revolution” would deliver—everything from breaking up the banks to a single-payer health-care system.
But of course, these promises are just fantasies in the vetocracy of America today. Hedge fund managers don’t fear their taxes will go up, because they know the politicians depend upon their campaign contributions more. (One friend recounts an event at which the president joked—or at least one can only hope—with the hedge fund managers who were there that they should support him because he hadn’t raised their taxes.) No president is going to “take on the banks” so long as finance is among the largest contributors to congressional campaigns. The point isn’t partisan. It’s structural. It’s about how this representative democracy does not represent America, and won’t until it’s changed.
Don’t get me wrong. The policies pressed by the leading Democratic candidates are critical. I support almost every one of them. But it’s because I think they are so critical that I believe we have to confront honestly and openly what makes achieving them now not possible.
We have to have the courage to trust that the American people will understand the crisis of governance that we’re in—if we explain it. We have to be willing to risk speaking the truth, if indeed we care to achieve any of the important changes these candidates press. And once that truth is spoken, we need candidates willing to show how they will fix this democracy not someday, but on Day One. Because experience has shown us that “someday” in Washington speak always means “never.”
One might imagine a skeptical press would raise these questions to these candidates. I know that when I have pressed a solution in my own campaign, the press has been quick to be skeptical about whether such a reform could be passed. But why is skepticism the rule for reform proposals, while playing-along-with-the-fantasy is the rule for these populist promises? Is changing the way campaigns are funded really any less likely than Congress enacting a single-payer health-care system?
The game of politics is winning. I get it. But there are times when a democracy requires more than just winning. It requires leadership to win in a way that makes governing possible. We don’t have that leadership. Yet.