an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Represent US and ‘US democracy’, part 1

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If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be ‘Citizens United.’ I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Leaving the weird awfulness of Covid-19 aside for a while, I must thank a good friend for sending this video my way. Jennifer Lawrence is an American actor none of whose films I’ve ever seen, but in this video she and Josh Silver, fellow member of the activist group Represent Us (with presumably a play on the US – and they’ve been making videos for years now), effectively focus on a problem of US politics I’ve largely neglected in my own analyses of the subject since the advent of the most recent incumbent in the white palace.


I’ve referred to it obliquely, for example when writing about the election cycle in that country, and my view that there’s at least one election too many – i.e. the presidential election. It all seems too much of an expenditure of time and energy, but I neglected to focus enough on the most insuperable problem – money.

So in this post I want to look at what Lawrence and Silver claim about the influence of money and wealthy lobbyists on government, especially federal government, and the corresponding lack of influence the relatively disadvantaged generally have, in spite of their vast numbers. Are there claims accurate?

l’ll try to fact check much of this – and their first claim isn’t directly about money, it’s the claim that the last two presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump, were ‘the least popular candidates since they began keeping track of such things’. Australia’s journalistic website The Conversation certainly confirms this about Trump. At election time, he ‘had the highest unfavorability rating in history, with over 61% of Americans having an “unfavorable” or “disapproving” view’. His victory, with fewer votes, says much about the electoral college system and how it favours less populated ‘red’ states, but I won’t go into that here. Clinton, though, was a ‘historically unpopular opponent’, with an unfavourable rating of 52%, the worst rating ever recorded for a losing candidate. So that checks out.

The next claim is that ‘only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress now.’ I imagine that the word ‘great’ is key here, as everything depends on framing. For example the question might be – how much confidence do you have in Congress? (a) no confidence (b) very little confidence (c) a fair amount of confidence (d) a great deal of confidence – or something similar. And how many constituents, anywhere, would say they have a great deal of confidence in their politicians, where there’s space to express skepticism? A quick check shows that the figure comes from a Gallup poll reported in The Atlantic back in 2014, and indeed it was a multiple choice question, but the most interesting/disturbing finding was that the attitude to Congress has suffered a massive downturn in recent decades, as shown by the graph below. So, unless there’s been an uptick in the last few years – and surely there hasn’t – Represent Us is right on this too.

The video next focuses on a Princeton study on ‘how public opinion influences the laws that Congress passes’. Represent Us presents this as a ‘thirty percent rule’. Any law has a 30% chance of being passed by Congress, regardless of its public support (from no support to complete support). The Princeton study concluded, apparently, that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy.’

So, the 2014 study, by two professors of politics and decision-making, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, is self-described as ‘tentative and preliminary’, but they are clear about their findings:

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

I’ve just read the study, and, unsurprisingly it’s a lot more nuanced, complex and at times dauntingly technical than the 12-minute video. For example it points out that policies advocated by cashed-up lobby groups may well benefit most of the public in spite of their lack of popular support. However, the economic elites, who have the most influence on Congress through financial, quid pro quo support, favour policies which are generally non-beneficial to the poorer, and far more numerous, sectors of the population. In fact, a lot of the findings remind me of passages in a very different text, Robert Sapolsky’s monumental book Behave, where he examines class-based behaviour (he calls it socio-economic status rather than class, coz we all know that the USA is a classless society haha). Take this example:

… a culture highly unequal in material resources is almost always also unequal in the ability to pull the strings of power, to have efficacy, to be visible. For example, as income inequality grows, the percentage of people who bother voting generally declines.

R Sapolsky, Behave, p292

As Sapolsky also points out, the super-rich, and their children, tend to move in the limited circle of their peers and so reinforce each other in seeking to maintain and enhance their lifestyles. The super-poor, meanwhile, are more often in a battle with each other (and not with the super-rich who are invisible to them) for resources, and tend not to trust government, since it is run by ‘them’. So the more economically unequal the nation, the more political power falls into the hands of the wealthy.

Anyway, returning to the video, the next claim is an odd one: ‘politicians are spending up to 70% of their time raising funds for re-election’. The term ‘up to 70%’ could actually mean anything from zero to 70%, so let’s take that with a pinch of salt. Another Represent Us website quotes former Democrat senator Tom Daschle: ‘a typical US senator spends two-thirds of the last two years of their term raising money’. I’m not sure if this is meant literally, but of course time spent isn’t the issue, rather money raised is the issue. The video goes on to make this interesting claim: ‘in order to win a seat in some races, you would have to raise $45,000 every day for six years to raise enough money to win’. I’m not sure how to fact-check such a claim, though ‘in some races’ could be a warning sign of some exaggeration or over-simplification. Then again, the idea of those kinds of dollars being involved in any electoral race is a sure sign of shonkiness. In any case the claim has to be seen in tandem with the next factoid presented, that ‘only .05% of Americans give more than $10,000 to politics’, which suggests that this tiny sector – the super-rich and wealthy special interest groups – are the funders of election campaigns, generally with agendas that the pollies are politely commanded to comply with – with the inevitable result for the increasingly disengaged majority.

So, whether these facts are precisely correct or not, it’s clear enough that money is poisoning democracy in the USA. As the video goes on to say, Americans are leaving the major parties in droves, and some 42% are registered as independent, rather than members of the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. And since there are virtually no independent candidates, the quote from Sapolsky above becomes all the more relevant.

I’ve only looked at about a third of the video, but I’ll post this lot and present my take on the rest in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2020 at 2:43 pm

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