There’s a widespread belief, particularly among those on the left, that our political system is fundamentally broken. In an era of hyper-partisanship, unlimited campaign contributions and ineffectual policies, it often appears there’s no hope of a politician effecting positive social change. Cynicism replaces hope and voters choose to not participate in elections, dropping out of the political process.
Indeed, I’d have to be dishonest or a poor observer of politics to claim that our country’s political and economic institutions are not deeply dysfunctional. Over $4 billion will be spent on this year’s midterm elections; the North Carolina senate election alone cost over $113 million. In addition, the 2014 midterm elections involved at least $100 million in undisclosed campaign expenditures from political “non-profits.” However, it’s difficult to know the exact number because these organizations are not required to report donors or total expenditures. And this campaign spending protects particular people’s interests: In the United States, the wealthiest 1 percent provides roughly 98 percent of campaign contributions.
And our economy? As of 2007, the wealthiest 1 percent of people in the United States has roughly $19 trillion of wealth; the bottom 40 percent has $119 billion of wealth. In other words, 1 percent of Americans own 34.6 percent of the country’s wealth. For working families, wages have been stagnant for decades. Unionization has been all but outlawed and the private sector union membership rate is 6 percent. According to Pew, the median wealth of black households in the U.S. is $5,677; the median wealth of white households is $113,149. For context, this is greater than the wealth inequality between white and black households in South Africa during apartheid.
And what issues have dominated the midterms? Were candidates talking about a wealth tax? Did any senator present a plan to restore unions’ right to organize? How many candidates made robust campaign finance reform a central campaign issue? Was there serious discussion of subjecting large financial institutions to serious regulation?
Given the magnitude of the problems facing our country, it’s easy to understand why people don’t see the utility of voting in this year’s midterms. And yet it’s a misplaced cynicism. For better or worse, we have the political institutions we have. The U.S. has a winner-take-all, single-member district electoral system; due to our non-proportional representation, voting outside the dominant two-party coalitions is strategically useless and will have no effect on the country’s policies. Therefore, change must occur through the two-party system,at least at some level.
So I’d say to the disaffected left: Vote on Tuesday. But don’t stop there.
If you want campaign finance reform, greater unionization or reduced inequality, we’ll need Democrats in Congress. But voting isn’t enough. Elected Democrats need to be subjected to constant critique through agitation, protest and organized lobbying as a method of pushing America’s discourse leftward. While we need to vote, we also need to remind Democratic candidates how disappointing they usually are. It’s not necessarily as fun or easy as dropping out of the political process, but it’s the only way we can shape our country into a more equitable, representational and democratic polity.
Email Michael Payne at [email protected]