American leaders of both parties have always prided themselves on the model democracy that they believe all other countries would benefit from adopting. It’s part of our belief in exceptionalism: We don’t have periodic coups, fighting in the legislature, multiple parties and fractured politics. We’re free, in short, of the chaos that accompanies political processes in so many countries. Instead, our spirit of bipartisanship and tradition of shared power among three branches of government show how politics can be conducted with the assurance of stability from one party, and one generation, to the next.
But the midterm elections just concluded once again reveal just how bogus this model is. The actual lessons are:
- Money talks more loudly than ever: By one count I heard, total spending by candidates in the midterm elections was $4 billion, and the approximate cost of winning a seat in the US Senate rose to around $100 million. Thanks to Supreme Court decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases, “outside” groups—i.e., nonparty, noncandidate—spent $1 billion in 2012 federal elections (Public Citizen News, September-October 2014). We’ll soon find out how much more they spent in 2014.
- Ideas don’t count; getting the other guys out of power is all that matters.
- Negativity is always more potent than positivity.
- For progressive policies to prevail, such as on the environment, guns, and human rights, the only real hope lies with voters in local elections and not in Washington.
- Corporate-funded advertising and political contributions, unlimited under the law, are the biggest threat to the popular vote.
- The corporate interest consistently trumps the public interest. Federal agencies charged with protecting the public—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Department of Justice (DoJ)—have all deferred to if not directly supported the largest corporations, financial institutions, and campaign funds on crucial public policy regulatory issues. They have done so by failing to investigate, delaying rulings, suppressing or ignoring information, and voting against measures that favor ordinary citizens.
- Divided government—the President belonging to one party, the two houses of Congress dominated by the other party—is a sure-fire recipe for gridlock because the so-called bipartisan spirit is a myth—except when it comes to military spending and war. Each side wants domination, not cooperation.
- For a president to rule effectively with divided government, he must resort to executive directives rather than legislative approval—which is to say, to subterfuge rather than through established democratic processes.
- The right to vote is not sacred after all. In states with conservative leadership, every trick will be tried to restrict the votes of minorities, and many restrictions will be upheld in conservative-dominated courts.
Is any credibility left in the American model? Do people feel as embarrassed and angry as I feel about the depths to which US democracy has sunk?