Voting participation is a good — if very limited — way to measure public engagement in the political process.
Over the past several years, voting participation has been abysmal, as documented by Thomas Ferguson and Walter Dean Burnham.
The drop off in voting turnout from the presidential election of 2012 to 2014 is the second largest of all time –24 percentage points. Only 1942’s decline from 1940 was bigger – 29 percentage points.
It gets even worse: When Ferguson and Burnham examined voter turnout state by state, they found “rates of voting that recall the earliest days of the 19th century, before the Jacksonian Revolution swept away property suffrage and other devices that held down turnout.”
And this is so for obvious reasons: The public recognizes that both political parties are, broadly speaking, beholden to their corporate donors, willing to adopt policies that damage the population at large as long as these decisions ensure a positive influx of cash into their campaign coffers.
As Ferguson and Burnham put it,
Increasing numbers of average Americans can no longer stomach voting for parties that only pretend to represent their interests.
Money in politics has dejected the majority of the population, who recognize, correctly, that public officials no longer work for their interests.
They see that the Democrats, a party which used to have strong appeal among the working class, have become just as dependent upon the 1% as Republicans.
And of course, no third party candidate can ever gain any serious traction, so potential voters are typically left with two candidates who they are less than enthusiastic about. Instead of voting for the “lesser of two evils,” many decide to not bother voting at all.
This is a disaster for American democracy, and a boon for corporate executives.
The latter have succeed in forming a political system that encourages passivity and inactivity, and a population that, even though they want change, are too disgusted and hopeless to do anything about it.
The public, of course, cannot be blamed for their negativity.
When discussing the disparity between public policy and public opinion with journalist John Nichols, Noam Chomsky raises points that are increasingly relevant as the 2016 presidential election inches ever nearer.
He points out that “about 70% percent of the population is literally disenfranchised.” Not coincidentally, this 70% tends to be those in the lower 70% of the income scale.
The reason for this disenfranchisement is simple:
Their political representatives simply pay no attention to them, so it doesn’t matter what they think…This is a plutocracy, not a democracy.
I would add that political representatives do indeed pay attention to them when it is time to accumulate cash and votes, but once these two objectives are attained, they are quickly disregarded.
As you move up the [income] scale, you get a little bit more influence. When you get to the very top, policy’s made.
These claims are consistent with the analysis by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page of Princeton University, which concluded that,
In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.
When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it…
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.
The public recognizes the existence of a system in which elites get their way, while the average American is ignored.
They recognize, through their daily life experience alone, that the majority of the economic gains made over the past several years have gone straight to the 1%, while they are left with perpetual financial insecurity and, often, crippling debt.
Perhaps 2016 can be different. Perhaps the populist rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and the clown-car of Republicans will induce more excitement, more enthusiasm, and more activity in a political climate that is in a dismal state.
But until the system which depends more on money than on an engaged citizenry is completely dismantled and rebuilt from the ground-up, with the needs of the public in mind, there is not much reason to expect anything outside of business as usual.
Candidates for the presidency are already, in the early stages of the race, accumulating unprecedented sums of money. The Koch Brothers, the leading buyers of politicians in the United States, are set to spend around $900 million in an attempt to shape their pet candidates and future legislation.
It’s not looking good, but anything can happen.