American Democracy had struggled on life support for many years. It took its final breath on January 21, 2010, when a conservative Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the landmark Citizens United case that since corporations had the same rights as people, and money was equivalent to speech, unlimited amounts could be spent to influence elections. The final nail was hammered into American Democracy's coffin with the victory of Republican Governor Scott Walker Tuesday in Wisconsin's recall election.
Sorry for the cliches and the defeatism, but it would be hard to spin this electoral disaster any other way. When an anti-union Tea Party candidate like Walker can handily defeat a fired-up working class opposition in a historically progressive state like Wisconsin, we who call ourselves liberals, progressives, or even Democrats must admit we are in serious trouble. A radically new and more effective strategy will be necessary to navigate this fatally flawed American political system.
Democracy died in America because the traditional concept of "one-man, one-vote" no longer works. The power of special interest money from corporate titans and billionaires far surpasses the power of the old-fashioned election ballot, the kind that once gave ordinary citizens a decent opportunity to choose their leaders. The playing field, once relatively level, now slants at a steep level toward the mansions and gated communities of the wealthy elite. When it comes to politics and elections in this country, now more than ever, money rules.
In an example of elections to come, Governor Walker's campaign outraised his Democratic challenger roughly 8 to 1, which resulted in a modest win. But it was a clear victory, and now that Republicans can gauge the power of campaign donations, they only need to hit up their willing wealthy contributors for however much they need to win. The only counterbalance on the Democratic side, labor unions, are reeling from multi-prong attacks from GOP governors and legislatures, and their numbers and influence continue to shrink.
It doesn't matter that most Americans oppose our military presence in Afghanistan, don't want cuts in Social Security and Medicare, want universal health care, and would like millionaires taxed at a higher rate. What matters most to "our" representatives is what the people who fund their campaigns want.
Candidates who raise the most money win have won very one of the last five presidential contests, and somewhere between 85 and 96% of Congressional races in recent years. President Obama was able to win in 2008 in part because he was able to outspend his Republican opponent. But that was pre-Citizens United. Corporate money is now flowing into Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, and with the help of huge "Super PACS," it won't be long before he overtakes the lead from the incumbent in campaign donations.
Wall Street was Obama's top contributor in 2008. That turned out to be a wise investment because when it came time to assign blame and punishment for the 2008 financial meltdown, Obama's Justice Department looked the other way, and the banksters walked free. With that worry out of the way, the big bankers have switched horses and are pouring Wall Street's election-buying money into the presidential campaign of one of their own, Mitt Romney.
The only way for Democrats to compete is to become more like Republicans--a process that's been happening for years--and find even more ways to please their corporate contributors.
Because of a conservative Supreme Court, Republicans in Congress, a corporate-controlled media, and a president afraid to stand up to corporate interests, that flawed system is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Making major changes will require citizen outrage, political awareness, mass participation, (especially by young people, who are no longer the beneficiaries of the American Dream), and a willingness to stand up to very powerful forces.
Maybe the Occupy movement is the seed of that revolution. Maybe conditions in this country will need to get much worse--which may not take long--before they can get better. But revolutionary change, the kind necessary to restore democracy, is desperately needed. Whether we are capable of it is an open question.
You can call America an oligarchy or a plutocracy, and you would be right. You can call this country a democracy--as most Americans reflexively will--but sadly, you would be wrong.
By the way, was it just a coincidence that the U.S. stock market posted its biggest gains for the year the day after the Wisconsin election? Or does corporate America know which way the political winds are blowing?