While we may rail against the disproportionate influence of big money and corporate interests in our political system, Americans generally still believe that we are, at heart, a democracy. Sure, the outside influences are there, but ultimately votes still beget leaders, and votes come from the people.
Or so we believe.
But what if that premise was as flimsy as an ice cream-soaked waffle cone on a hot summer day? What if we were only a democracy on the surface? What if deep down we were really an oligarchy, a government by a small group of powerful elites?
Is your mind blown yet? It should be.
Oh, Democracy, Where Art Thou?
We may think we are the pinnacle of a democracy for the people, but as it turns out, we’re not even in the top ten, and barely make it to the top fifteen.
A recent rating of the most democratic nations on the planet placed the U.S. at number 15 in a list of all the world’s democracy-claiming countries. The top 10 nations included Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland and Austria.
What makes these top 10 democratic powerhouses more democratic than the US? Their prowess largely rests on three pillars:
- Limits on campaign donations and/or spending (Finland, New Zealand, Ireland and Austria)
- Publically funded elections (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and Austria)
- Bans on political television advertising (Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, and Ireland)
And here’s where hope lies: these are all things that the US could implement. We already technically have limits on campaign donations, even though with super PACs working in tandem with corporations and billionaire donors, there are plenty of shadows for unlimited funds to hide in. Publically funded elections are gaining popularity. And while a ban on political television advertising would clash with our First Amendment, a new amendment could make this a reality.
But wait, there’s more.
In what’s been dubbed the Oligarchy Study, researchers explored the question, ‘Who really rules?’ And using empirical evidence, they determined what many of us already fear: that wealthy elites are hoarding political power, while “…average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
In short, the free will of “We, the People” has been supplanted by “Those, the Rich.”
Evoking images of Rich Uncle Pennybags, oligarchy—at its base level—means a country controlled by a few people – often those with all the cash. America’s transformation has been aided by numerous factors. Most recently, the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC, which gave corporations and the wealthy elite freedom to throw unchecked amounts of dough at federal campaigns. And we know that money can make or break a campaign’s success.
But America’s democracy in decline didn’t start when the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United in 2010. As the Princeton study suggests, this has been a long-term trend. And crunching data drawn from more than 1,800 policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002 reveals democracy in the rearview mirror, with the rich piloting the course forward. Regardless of—or even against the will of—the majority of U.S. voters.
But there is hope, America. We can get our democracy back, and we can put our voices back into the election process. We can start by overturning Citizens United and ending the unchecked dollars flowing into our elections.