America is an amazing country. We as a people have managed, despite tendencies to the contrary, to maintain and expand a democratic representative government for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. We have gone from a system where the color of one’s skin determined slavery, to being seen as only 2/3 of a person and eventually having full voting rights. We have gone from a culture where women were considered too frail in temperament to consider politics, to having full voting rights and now running and winning positions in government. We came from a feudalism where the worth of a person was more determined by their familial name than the power of their ideas and the passion of their lives. We did all this and more, yet we find ourselves tacitly accepting and overtly seeking the very loss of political freedom that drove this country to exist and persevere.
Many can likely remember the headlines when Barack Obama became president in 2008. “Change” was the word of the day and like a progressive savior he was to usher in a new era of anti-moneyed interests and fight for the common person upon which his campaign was supposedly based. Setting aside the ridiculous rhetoric out of the conservative pundits and pop-media politicians decrying Obama’s action as that of a king, there is still some comparison with the headlines and progressive rhetoric leading up to his presidency. Mainstream media has done a fine job of promoting this narrative and to an American public enamored of the Hollywood-ization of politics, the focus on a single person and family is certainly a lot easier than attempting to understand the myriad relationships and complex political arrangements of a large bureaucratic federal government. As our technology has made all things individual capable of being social, so then that same technology has made all things local into national. Cut off from any sense of empowerment through our local governments, we seek to find in the Presidency a banner-man to climb that tall hill of Washington corruption and lead the masses to victory.
In “Escape from Freedom“, Erich Fromm discusses the nature of freedom within the context of human social psychology. It is worth quoting him at length here:
“Both factors, his need to live and the social system, in principle are unalterable by him as an individual, and they are the factors which determine the development of those other traits that show greater plasticity. Thus the mode of life, as it is determined for the individual by the peculiarity of an economic system, becomes the primary factor in determining his whole character structure, because the imperative need for self-preservation forces him to accept the conditions under which he has to live” (p. 16).
With this in mind, let’s consider the latest ascendent to the progressive populist throne, Bernie Sanders, and the political context that he rises within, a context that seems forgotten by the American people.
In “Fortune,” it was noted: “Saez and Zucman show that, in America, the wealthiest 160,000 families own as much wealth as the poorest 145 million families, and that wealth is about 10 times as unequal as income.” This inequality is not simply a reflection of an economic system creating a modern-day oligarchy, it is an indication of our political system as well. To win a seat in Congress takes money, but the amount has dramatically increased over the years. From 1986 to 2012, the average cost to win an election for the House of Representatives has risen from $360,000 to $1.3 million, an increase of 344%. During the same time period, the average cost to win an election for Senate has risen from $6.4 million to $10.4 million, an increase of 62%. The Presidential election of 2012 was the first time in which over $2 billion was spent by the candidates themselves, with a grand total from all organizations and groups at over $7 billion. To put this in context, that’s more than the entire GDP of Bermuda in 2012.
Much is currently being made, as it was during Obama’s campaign, of Sanders’s appeal to the general populace. His campaign page has the line “not the billionaires” to indicate his interests are with the populist 99%. This is not a hard case to be made, as a look at the contributors to his political campaigns shows. For the purposes of distinguishing Sanders from Hillary Clinton, Vox published a side-by-side comparison of donors since 1989. While only one of Clinton’s top 20 donors are non-corporate, 19 of Sanders’s top donors are unions. Were this merely an issue of ideological purity, the numbers would be an open and shut case of who is truly for the people rather than the vested interests of the disproportionately powerful. However, taking a look at the numbers again we see a remarkable problem, Clinton’s number one donor has given more than Sanders’s top 13 donors combined. With an acknowledgment of how much money is required to win political campaigns, we can see that the issue of being elected is not one of ideological populism but economic disparity. When that disparity is connected with the grotesque difference in wealth inequality, we are no longer discussing a representative democracy.
When faced with such distinct inequality in wealth and the absurdity of campaign finance, the solution is often presented as connected to voting. With that in mind, there are two more points to consider, both having to do with incumbency. For the congressional elections of 2014, incumbents enjoyed a heavy advantage in financing their campaigns. The average amount of money raised by an incumbent over their challenger was 12 times as much money for the Senate and for the House of Representatives, nearly 6 times as much money. This monetary discrepancy carries over to the rate in which incumbents get reelected, which in 2012 was 90%. Lest we think this was an aberration, the 2010 election saw an 85% reelection of incumbents and that was the lowest number seen since 1970, also at 85%. We are faced with a situation where it is not ideas and character which determine an election, but money and whether the incumbent is still breathing.
The American people are not merely not voting, with voter turnout in 2014 at 36.4%, the lowest since World War II, when they do they are simply voting in whatever name they remember. To be fair, 2014 was a non-presidential election year when turnout tends to be higher. In 2012 the turnout was 58% and in 2008, 62%. Those numbers are considered high, in a country governed by those who are supposed to be of the people and for the people, and yet are being elected into office by less than 2/3 of the eligible population. It is as if after having fought so long to get equal suffrage we gave up any pretense to caring for it.
To quote Bernie Sanders: “Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated in this country is going to the top 1 percent. How does it happen that the top 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? My conclusion is, that that type of economics is not only immoral, it is not only wrong, it is unsustainable.” When faced with such incredible wealth inequality, where to be elected requires monetary acquisition greater than small countries, and when those already in office possess such a distinct advantage in getting reelected it’s a serious question as to why they bother campaigning anyway, little wonder then that the American people feel powerless and reach out in emotive exuberance for anyone who seems to care. However accurate the concern being expressed by Sanders and previously by Obama is and may have been, no single person will effect the change popular sentiment desires.
From Fromm: “Thus a man, trapped in a fire, stands at the window of this room and shouts for help, forgetting entirely that no one can hear him and that he could still escape by the staircase which will also be aflame in a few minutes. He shouts because he wants to be saved, and for the moment this behavior appears to be a step on the way to being save – and yet it will end in complete catastrophe” (p. 152).
For all the good people like Sanders desire to accomplish, their will is not that of a king, no matter the hope-filled longings of those desperate for that good. Until the American populace looks beyond a name, looks beyond the social separateness resulting from identity politics, to a genuine appreciation for a government of and for the people, any change will be like the flames of a will-o-wisp. Only when groups are more concerned with building a system that provides real opportunities for the majority rather than scrambling for the scraps from the powerful, will full social upheaval occur. So long as we remain divided by declarations of which group has had more evil done to them, we will never rise up to follow even the most charismatic banner-man to the shining city upon the hill.
© David Teachout