The Buying-Off of American Democracy
Economic inequality is eroding the foundations of America's democracy, and ultimately the American Dream itself. This is because economic conditions that favor the rich and powerful, create conditions where the rich and powerful are able to easily control economic policy, giving rise to vicious cycle of higher and higher levels of economic inequality and the erosion of democracy.
According to a paper by the Economic Research Institute, in 2015, the top one percent of families made 25 times what families in the bottom 90 percent did. Some inequality is necessary in capitalism, but in America, inequality is so high, that wealth and power are able to snuff out competition, cementing the rule of an oligarchy.
Recent headlines are filled with news of an elite college admissions scheme known as Varsity Blues, including 13 college coaches, and 13 CEOs took part in a scheme where wealthy parents paid handsome bribes to secure spots for their unqualified children in schools including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA, USC and Wake Forest. Parents paid as much as 6.5 million to secure spots for children in their schools. The scheme involved photoshopping photos of rich students on the bodies of athletes in order to make them seem like accomplished students. This sort of corruption is the norm, not the exception, and at the root of the problem is our gaping, ever growing economic inequality.
It has been empirically proven that the opinions economic elites and business lobbying groups exert significant control over government policy, but the opinions of ordinary citizens do not. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page conducted a multi-variable analysis of the influencing factors for 1,779 policy issues.The analysis concludes that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. This result goes against the odds considering the limitations of the data set. The authors write.
"The failure of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is all the more striking because it goes against the likely effects of the limitations of our data. The preferences of ordinary citizens were measured more directly than our other independent variables, yet they are estimated to have the least effect."
A system in which the very few have so much say and the rest have nothing is indicative of oligarchy, not a democracy. In America’s extreme inequality, politicians need to pay more attention to gaining donations from these elite groups than actually paying attention to their constituents. For House seats, more than 90 percent of candidates who spend the most win. From 2000 through 2016, there was only one election cycle where that wasn’t true: 2010. “In that election, 86 percent of the top spenders won.
When politics becomes a play to pay game, the donor class always win and the people lose. Congress itself is made up of the rich, whose views and interests differ substantially from the lower and middle classes. The total wealth of all current members of Congress was at least $2.43 billion when the 115th Congress began, 20 percent more than the collective riches of the previous Congress, a significant gain during a period when both the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose slightly less than 10 percent.
Decades of psychological research shows that viewpoints are affected by background. Guilford Psychology professor Richie Zweighenhaft, wrote that
“On the basis of these and other studies, it is safe to assume that American men who spend four years of their lives at Yale rooting against Harvard and dating women from Smith and Vassar see the world very differently than American men who are migrant laborers and speak only Spanish. Each person is unique, but a shared background with one group sets one apart from many other groups, often making it difficult to appreciate other needs and viewpoints”
We see this dynamic play out exactly as described in the rejection of recent common sense policy decisions that would have improved working lives and reduced income inequality.
In 2016, Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, now chair of the Democratic National Committee, proposed in 2016 doubling the overtime pay threshold to $47,476, which would have enabled an additional 4 million workers to qualify for overtime pay. Fast-food corporations, including CKE, owner of Carl’s Jr., opposed the proposed overtime threshold increase. Andrew F. Puzder, the CEO of CKE at the time, wrote an essay condemning the increase and explaining how millions of low-paid workers should rejoice at working extra time without extra pay because it gave all of them the opportunity to work their way to the top like one worker at CKE once did. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobby group for corporations, filed suit against the proposed increase and won.
Some people say that the poor should lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, but we are cutting the very mechanisms which function as bootstraps.