For many reasons, this was a dispiriting presidential election, but a significant lesson learned is our country’s vulnerability to creating a class of outsiders.
We are deeply polarized in a way that affects how we live our lives, how we choose where to live, and the news and information we consume.
President Obama bemoaned this polarization earlier this year, warning that the poisonous political climate is a growing threat. Political insults have become the norm, and bipartisanship is penalized rather than rewarded. He concluded that “if we can’t compromise, by definition, we can’t govern ourselves.” This is a dire assessment by the leader of our nation.
The impact of polarization is far reaching and lasts beyond the campaign season. It reduces participation in our civic society and results in disengagement from community life, our government, and our politics.
Those who hold strongly negative feelings about the opposite political party are much more likely to participate in politics than everybody else, according to the Pew Research Center. This makes them more likely to be heard by the politicians. The rest are sitting it out, and that leaves a huge percentage of Americans out of the process of solving the problems we face.
For a nation like ours that holds itself out as the gold standard of representative democracy, our voter turnout rate tells a different story. This year, 225 million Americans were eligible to vote. But the the number of people who actually voted was far less — perhaps slightly more than half. Too many do not think their voice matters. Many voters were disenchanted with “the establishment” and wanted something new.
Some people believe this cynicism about government and decline in civic participation is because there is too much money in politics. As a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, which has jurisdiction over the administration of our campaign finance laws, many expect me to agree. But I don’t.
In our system, money is needed in political campaigns. Candidates need to hire staff, organize and convey their message. Money enables them to inform voters.
The concern is not the amount of money, but that the vast majority of campaign funds come from a tiny, highly unrepresentative segment of people who then wield disproportionate power. Notably, the most prolific donors to super PACs are overwhelmingly white and male, even as the voter-eligible population is at its most diverse in American history.
Those wealthy donors then have greater influence on public policy, including which problems to prioritize, and which to ignore. They also may have the ability to dictate who can run for office in the first place.
Incredibly, in the election that just ended, less than one-half of 1 percent of the entire U.S. population contributed amounts greater than $200 to political campaigns. Yet this infinitesimal sliver of Americans was responsible for 70 percent of the money raised. Just 60 people were responsible for more than 57 percent of the $370 million that super PACs spent on behalf of presidential campaigns by the end of October, according to the Wall Street Journal.
And that’s just the money that we know about so far. Undisclosed campaign spending — or “dark money” — is deeply troubling to voters. It should be. Anonymous spenders pumped more than $180 million into this year’s federal races to purposefully hide who is behind campaigns.
The relationship between money and our political system alone doesn’t fully explain people’s disaffection from government. Many also feel that government is not responsive to their needs. Americans do not know who to hold accountable because the whole system seems out of balance.
Trust in government has suffered seriously and trust is essential to what makes our democratic system legitimate.
Unfortunately, evidence abounds that legitimacy of our democracy is, in fact, waning. A study published in the Journal of Democracy found in two decades that citizens in Western democracies, including the United States, have “become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.” Most disturbingly, it found that younger Americans are even more likely to be disenchanted with democracy.
If trust remains low, then people are not only less likely to vote, but to uphold their end of the social contract and participate in shaping — and upholding — the rule of law.
We must renew our commitment to civic participation. It underlies the basis for representative government, and is essential to us as a society. Everyone should have a voice in our civic affairs.
Participation in government matters.
Together, we must reduce barriers so that it’s easier — not harder — to vote. More people should be encouraged to run for office, particularly those who have traditionally been under-represented — women, communities of color, and people of modest income. If people feel that they have a part in shaping outcomes, then the perception that the system is “rigged” may lessen. As the late Abner Mikva taught us, democracy is a verb.