The midterm elections are past; now is the time to reflect on the larger themes of our democracy. What kind of nation are we? What kind of nation do we want to be? We say the United States is a democracy where the people rule, but we wonder how well our self-image reflects the political ideals that have nurtured generations.
We enjoy so many democratic qualities such as elections and freedom of speech, association and religion that we tend to overlook our political deficiencies. The “will of the people” is frequently rejected. Were it up to the public, we would not have the tax reform passed a year ago that provides such unreasonable largess to the upper 1 percent. Opinion polls indicate public support for a spending program on infrastructure; Congress does not agree. Two-thirds of Americans support stringent gun laws; Congress refuses to act. Most Americans believe that climate change is a problem, and CO2 emissions should be limited; both the executive and legislative branches of government are of another mind.
No wonder people feel left out, questioning whether our democracy can improve their lives. Many become apathetic and disappear on Election Day. Others, burdened by frustration and angst, become angry and line up behind a seductive person who hoists a banner and promises change.
At the base of our undemocratic practices are the massive gaps in income and wealth. The top one-tenth of one percent of Americans today holds approximately as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, the greatest disparity since the Great Depression. When I began tracking income differentials several decades ago, the CEOs of large U.S. corporations earned approximately 30 times the pay of a typical worker. Today it’s about 300 times the average worker pay. Such figures also reflect the influence of corporate behemoths that pour money into political campaigns and fund powerful lobbyists.
What it all suggests is that money and wealth — who has it and who uses it — determines who really controls. They who have it largely set the agenda, determining what issues gain focus, leading to advantages that come in the form of regulations, laws, tax codes, court decisions and loosely regulated financial markets. Thus a necessary reform to enhance our democratic process includes restrictions on campaign financing that place limits on corporate campaign spending and lobbyists’ gifts to politicians.
A widely shared goal of political reformers is to redesign U.S. congressional districts. For decades gerrymandering has been a scandal, but matters became worse after the last decennial census. Thus in Ohio (as elsewhere) gerrymandering makes it possible for a presidential candidate to carry a state handily in the popular vote even as congressional seats go to the other political party. As Yascha Mounk argues in “The People vs. Democracy,” gerrymandering encourages partisanship by forcing candidates to “worry more about avoiding a primary challenge” than “expressing the stance of average citizens.”
Elections in perhaps half of the states, but particularly in the southern and border region, are affected by rules adopted to decrease non-white and often poorer people from participating. For example, it was easily determined that states with the largest voter participation by African Americans in 2008 were at the center of voter restrictions in 2010 and after.
Long one of the most visible anti-democratic measures is the make-up of the U.S. Senate. To ensure ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, both small and large states were granted two senators. A necessary compromise. But America’s position has changed dramatically since then. Wyoming, for example, with a population of 575,000, njoys two U.S. senators, the same as California with its nearly 40,000,000 population. Such disparity provides white, rural areas with wildly disproportionate power in both domestic and foreign policy matters.
True democracy will flourish best as it becomes a practiced reality and not just a philosophic value. The aim is not for a perfect democracy but for one that more equitably distributes power. If history is our guide, that can be achieved. To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, as the Preamble states, our Constitution has been amended again and again on behalf of voters, women, minorities, and workers. We should demand that our representatives step up and follow in the footsteps of their reformist predecessors.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.