The summer following my freshman year, I worked as an intern for my United States congressman. Part of my duties required me to answer the phones and hear constituents angrily complain about issues I could not control.
Whenever I had an irate constituent on the phone, which was often, I was instructed by my supervisors to say, “The congressman understands your frustrations. May I please get your name so I may send him your message?” One day after regurgitating this response, a constituent angrily barked at me, “My congressman doesn’t care about me. He only cares about some special interest groups in Washington.”
While I do not condone screaming at an intern about your frustrations, this constituent may have a right to feel angry about American politics.
We all have heard the political rhetoric about how America is the best democracy on earth. Ronald Reagan famously said that American democracy is “a shining city upon a hill” that guides others towards freedom. Politicians profess their adherence to this ideal and say that their policies ensure that democracy will live on in future generations, but the facts tell a different story.
A 2014 Princeton University study states that the United States is not actually a democracy but functions as an oligarchy. Researchers came to this conclusion after reviewing more than 1,700 surveys on public policy issues taken from 1981 to 2002. The data was then broken down by income level, and the results were alarming.
For example, the report states that when economically elite Americans do not support a policy change, the measure is only adopted 18 percent of the time. On the other hand, when a majority of this group supports the measure, the policy passes 45 percent of the time.
How can this be, you ask? Researchers stated that, “because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”
They conclude that “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
This data supports the frustration felt by my congressman’s constituent and a majority of the electorate. Economic inequality is dangerously high in America, and leadership at all levels of government is not equipped to handle the issue. Anger may lead Americans to blame politicians for these ills, but is that a fair argument? The public shares part of the blame.
When the majority does not participate in democracy, it loses its edge. We the people decide the matters of the country, but when only 36 percent of the “We” show up, it is hard to make a stand. Elections are now a billion dollar business because “We” are harder to reach. Americans vote less, get news from politically‑skewed media outlets and consider it a social taboo to discuss politics in public. Politicians have to spend obscene amounts of money to get our attention because “We” have not fulfilled our most basic of civic responsibilities.
So when you are angry about corporations pumping too much money into the electoral process, do the system a favor and vote. If you are angry that General Motors can refinance its loans to the government but a college student cannot, you should discuss these issues with the people around you. There are many college students who will share your frustrations. Civic obligations are not difficult to meet.
This may come off as a rant to some, but if you get anything out of my article, please remember this message: do not be surprised when the system mistreats you. You get out of the system what you put into it. If it is nothing, do not expect much in return. So, on behalf of the system that was American democracy, it would be nice if you showed up
One thought on “America is not a democracy”
I recently finished reading this excellent book. I think the author of this op-ed and anyone else, really, would benefit from reading it also. Although you are correct in saying that we can only get what we put into the government, we have no real control over who we put in. This is something I learned from reading this book.
Although turnout is something that could, eventually, influence policy, it is not the cure for the problems. The government was never founded as a democracy (or representative republic, which is what the founders actually called it). It was founded as an aristocracy and has remained an aristocracy. Is this intrinsically bad? Not necessarily but the way Americans think and the philosophical system by which the aristocracy rules make it bad.
During the 20th century, we, as a country, turned wealth, power, and “rights” into ends in themselves (rather than means to a more noble end). As an HAB grad, I am inclined to blame (at least a bit) the change of the education system which dropped Classics in favor of STEM. The idolization of wealth created an economic system that sees people as means (rather than ends). We have a perverted sense of rights which created a selfish civilization obsessed with “my” rights, “my” happiness, “my” convenience, etc. We lust for control over every aspect of our lives (and bodies) as well as the lives of others if we can.
Without a paradigm shift in Western philosophy (political, economical, and ethical), no amount of voting and voicing your opinion is really going to make a difference.
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