Your vote is sacred, we’re told; it’s your fundamental constitutional right, for God’s sake! Or is it?
Every election day, media outlets, candidates and political establishments practically shout to us: “Go vote!”
After all, they point out, your vote is sacred; it’s your fundamental constitutional right, for God’s sake! Well… yes to voting, but most people (including most politicians) would be astonished to learn that America’s Constitution contains no declaration that We the People have a right to vote! In the founding document of our democratic republic, voting is mentioned 37 times, but none of them embrace access to the ballot as a fundamental right.
This is no oversight, for most of the founders of the 1780s were unabashed plutocrats who wanted suffrage restricted to White, male property owners, fencing out the “democratic rabble.” No less of an eminence than James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, insisted that only the wealthy be allowed to vote, calling them “the safest repositories of republican liberty.” He warned that poorer classes could be swayed by populist anger at the propertied elites.
Among the prominent founders, only Benjamin Franklin had the temerity to dissent from Madison’s institutionalization of plutocratic rule, pointing out that the vast majority of those who had fought, bled and died to establish the new nation were landless commoners. He also rudely noted that the wealthy were at least as corruptible as the poorest of the poor, so disenfranchising the masses would do nothing to improve a government’s virtue.
Slowly, painfully, the American ballot box has been inched open to more of us, as generations of grassroots commoners have battled decades of brutal denial by the economic elites and social reactionaries of their day to extend the legal possibilities of democratic participation. But as we see in this year’s blatant, violent, mob efforts by the right-wing minority to shut out millions of legitimate voters, the few can still overrule the many in America.
Meanwhile, bills calling for a constitutional amendment to affirm every citizen’s fundamental right to cast a ballot have been introduced in Congress for years. None have even been given a hearing, much less a vote.
America exists today as a bizarre anomaly: We profess to be an electoral democracy, yet we are ruled by a governmental plutocracy.
One especially gross example of this incongruity is the overwhelming power of big money over the people’s will. By a wide margin, Americans of all political stripes want to ban the distorting force of huge electoral campaign donations by favor-seeking corporations and ultrarich elites. Yet… nothing. National and state lawmakers take the plutocratic money and promptly bury democratic reforms that could stop the gusher of corrupt cash.
An analysis of donations in this year’s congressional races shows that this plutocratic perversion of our politics and government has reached absurd levels. Historian Nancy McLean and public interest advocate Frank Clemente have documented that the two main super PACs trying to put Republicans in Congress got about half of their $188 million election fund from just 27 billionaires. Also, a corporate front that backs GOP candidates, Club for Growth, got nearly $35 million from only three billionaires. Thanks to years of congressional stonewalling and the steady partisan stacking of our top courts with corporate ideologues, there are essentially no limits on this purchase of lawmakers. Indeed, the biggest donors are even allowed to undermine democracy in secret, not revealing their identity.
The money-dealing in politics translates directly into antidemocratic public policies. Lawmakers elected with this money not only support the billionaires’ special-interest agenda (which the people don’t want), but also are fierce opponents of any reforms to increase voter participation in our governing process (which people do want).
That’s why, for example, efforts to guarantee every eligible American a constitutional right to vote have not moved forward in Congress — even though the great majority of people favor it. It’s a simple political equation: Plutocratic money quashes democratic will, producing plutocratic public policies.