Students of history will recognize the term Ancien Regime as referring to Pre-Revolutionary France and the dominance of the monarchy and noble families. My reason for invoking this phrase isn’t too different. We don’t have a monarchy or titled nobility in the U.S., but we certainly have an aristocracy that seeks to protect their privilege at the expense of the average citizen.
But you say, “No! we have elected government and free markets!” And I respond, “Ah, but look closer. There are subtle limits on our representative governments and the reality is that it isn’t too hard for the monied and the powerful to manipulate these segments of our government.
What I mean by all of this is demonstrated by the dysfunction of the Senate, the unfairness in tax policy and the method by which congressional districts are drawn. Many of the current problems we see in the federal government are actually due to institutional structures put into place by the Founding Fathers. We tend to lionize the people who created the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and we regard the Constitution, itself, as a quasi-religious text.
However, in some very subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, our government was designed to protect the interests of the powerful. The Founding Fathers, to a large extent, were all rich white men. It makes sense that they would structure a government that would tend to favor people like them. However, the structure of the government designed by this document tends to work against the interests of the average citizen.
How is it that every member of Congress has more wealth than probably 90% of the country? How is it that the most profitable company in the world (Exxon, at the time of this writing) gets substantial tax breaks and other subsidies from the government while we’re cutting unemployment insurance and other social services? How is it that many state legislatures are dominated by one political party (the Republicans, with super-majorities in some cases) and we re-elected a Democratic president and increased Democratic control in the Senate? How is it that it is perfectly constitutional for state legislatures to pass laws that would have changed the outcome of the Presidential election without affecting the number of votes cast or the outcome of the popular vote? How is it that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass legislation (the Senate is a majority rule, 51 votes win, legislative body)?
All of these are the result of structures put into place by the Founding Fathers and reworked over time through our history. All of these reflect a government that is fundamentally concerned with protecting the privileges of the wealthy.
It’s not just social progress such as civil rights, creating a viable healthcare system or providing protection and fair wages for workers which remains deficient. When a privileged few are allowed to flourish based on ‘stacking the deck’ – providing incentives based not on continued achievement, but on some perception of innate worth – our society as a whole stagnates. Resources which could fund research into new technologies or provide education for a smarter, more innovative workforce are diverted to fund the luxurious lifestyles of the powerful few. If this pattern is left to continue or becomes more extreme, a society can sabotage its future.
Changes We Can Make
The first thing we need to do to level the playing field and undo some of the control the wealthy and powerful have on the country is redraw gerrymandered Congressional districts. For example, in Florida, we have a fairly moderate electorate: one Republican Senator and one Democratic. The state is considered a swing state in the Presidential election. However, our state legislature has a Republican super-majority and all three branches are dominated by Republicans. Also, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, by a margin of about 7%.
The Republican Party, which for the past 80-90 years, has been dominated by corporate interests, conservative (regressive) social values, generally against the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Union and opposed to the expansion of the social safety net. This list seems to be all over the map, but there is a unifying theme if you look closely. All of these political positions favor an entrenched white Protestant upper class composed of business owners and capital investors. (Bears a striking resemblance to the social composition of the Founding Fathers, wouldn’t you say?)
Now, over the past 20 years, Republican leaders have been conscious of the fact that the nation as a whole is becoming less white, less Protestant and more accepting of non-traditional social values. As a result, they’ve developed methods of using constitutional limits on democracy to their benefit.
Gerrymandering is Unconstitutional
With the advent of computer technology, the task of redistricting (which affects the state House, Senate and federal House of Representatives) has fallen victim to the most efficient methods of gerrymandering ever seen. By creating a small number super-majority districts for your opponents, you can increase the number of districts in which your party has a better than average chance of winning. For evidence, all we have to do is look to the fact that over 90% of House seats are considered ‘safe’, meaning there is a very small chance of the incumbent or the incumbent’s party losing an election.
It’s not necessarily that Republicans are the bad guys and Democrats are the good guys when it comes to redistricting. Both parties have been guilty of gerrymandering and it will continue to be a problem until we have strong laws in place recognizing that stacking districts to favor one party or another (or any one group or another) is unconstitutional.
There’s a provision in the 14th Amendment that reads as follows:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The important section in there is “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens…”. We tend to gloss over what it means to abridge the rights of an individual. It doesn’t seem as significant as the outright violation of one’s rights. However, it is still very important and when it comes to gerrymandering, it is an indispensable concept. To abridge is to reduce or lessen the impact. In everyday English for our purposes here, it translates to the concept of ‘one person, one vote’.
Once we understand that diluting the voting rights of one group to favor those of another group, through gerrymandering, abridges the voting rights of one citizen in favor of another, then we have tools available to combat the anti-democratic forces which would seek to retain power for the privileged few.
Public Financing for All State and Federal Elections
I wrote earlier that most members of Congress are wealthy and are not representative of average Americans. One of the biggest reasons why this is the case is that running an election is very expensive. The sad fact is that most Americans can’t afford to run for office.
It is true that elections are funded by campaign donations, but even getting to that point requires substantial investment in building a campaign organization, fees to get on the ballot as well as getting your message to potential donors. All of this is necessary before you consider that you have to know the ‘right’ people (i.e. people rich enough to donate to campaigns) so that you’ll have enough money coming in to be competitive. Note: in over 90% of political campaigns, the person who raises the most money is the one who wins.
This bias towards the wealthy was purposely written into the Constitution by the Framers. We have to remember that this was a time when those in the aristocracy and upper classes felt that the under-privileged and the poor were not capable of governing themselves. Thankfully, we’ve reached a point of enlightenment where we know that average Americans are capable of governing themselves and must participate in order to protect the interests of everyone.
To that end, we need a revolution in campaign financing. We need to put an end, once and for all, to a system of private campaign financing which always favors the wealthy and well-connected. We need a system of public campaign financing for all elected officials: city, county, state and federal. Until the average American has a reasonable chance of winning an election at any level and is not beholden to special interests for campaign money, this country will be in the hands of the rich and powerful.
There is a lot of opposition to the ideas I’m presenting here. Some of them appear valid until you really look at them and others are based on fear, personal bias and/or greed.
On the subject of redistricting, I’ve been hearing about how Republicans feel that the current electoral college system weakens the power of rural areas to the benefit of urban areas. (Basically, Republican strategists want to move away from the system where the winner of the popular vote in states gets all of that state’s electoral votes. They want to replace it with a system in which electoral votes are awarded according to congressional district) Now I will agree that when you look at a map of voting in congressional districts, there seems to be a lot more red than blue. However, the reason the blue areas are small is that they tend to be large cities with extremely high population density. The red areas tend to be mostly empty space.
What that argument about rural vs. urban wants you to believe is that democracy is based on demographics. They would have you believe that one rural area is equal to one urban area. Democracy is based on people. Specifically, the number of people who feel one way vs the number of people who disagree. Which ever side has more people wins the day. Demographics, urban vs. rural, etc. have nothing to do with the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. When someone proposes electoral schemes and the like, what they really mean is that they know they can’t win with a majority. They are looking for some way to subvert the will of the majority without appearing to do so.
Once you begin to think about it, there is no rational defense for reworking Electoral votes to be awarded according to the winner of congressional districts. The concept of the Electoral College, itself, is outdated.
Why We Need Change
Because our system is skewed to favor the interests of an entrenched wealthy minority, often resources are allocated not based on need (poverty programs, healthcare, transportation and communication infrastructure) or where the most good can be done (such as education and scientific research). Instead, our resources subsidize the corporations and special interests with political clout. If our politicians weren’t beholden to the campaign donations of the wealthy and corporations, I doubt we’d be subsidizing the most profitable company in the world while trying to figure out how to cut programs which serve the poor and elderly. If we had more average Americans in elected office (and you will never convince me that a rich white man is an average American) I believe a lot of the social and economic struggles we currently face would quickly disappear.
The progression towards democratic participation for all, regardless of class, sex, religion, ethnicity or social group has been a major theme in the narrative of American history. The concepts of ‘one person, one vote’ and that ‘not everyone can be a great legislator, but a great legislator can come from anywhere’ ought to guide us into the future. Only then will the Ancien Regime finally be eliminated.