Most Americans today would not deny that there are problems with the American democratic system. The June 2012 Gallup polls about Congress showed that 6 percent of the American public is “very confident” about Congress, and 7 percent is “relatively confident,” together a total of 13 percent; while polls taken two years later, in June 2014, showed that the low confidence level has continued, with only 4 percent being “very confident,” and 3 percent being “relatively confident,” a total of 7 percent. Despite the small change in polling numbers, there are indeed problems with American democracy, which are primarily shown in the following ways:
In 2010, the highest court in America decided that lobbyist money is a kind of “freedom of speech” protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment, and there’s no upper limit to donation amounts from companies and organizations. In 2014, it was decided that there’s no upper limit to individual donations to campaigns either. It is no longer appropriate to describe American democracy as “one person, one vote”; it is better described as “one dollar, one vote.” Democracy has become dollar-driven and a game for the wealthy. This is the biggest flaw in American politics.
As an extension of money-dominated politics, special interest groups have become highly organized and use lobbyists to affect American political life. The American democratic system has become almost entirely controlled by lobby groups. If an organization were not wealthy and organized, then it would be very difficult for this group to be represented. The Economist has lamented that money has attained unprecedented political influence in American history. Tens of thousands of lobbyists have made the legislative process lengthy and complicated, and given special interest groups more opportunity to affect the outcome.
Today, the depth and scope of bipartisan conflict in American politics has reached a never-before-seen level. Confrontations between Democrats and Republicans have never been this intense, resulting in neither side being able to reach an agreement on issues of national interest. After the global financial crisis, this conflict did not stop either. The infighting has permeated all areas and become commonplace in American politics, leading to many “veto points” in policy-making, and resulting in many unrealized promises from the government. President Obama’s slogan of “Change” when he ran for the White House in 2008 included reducing the national debt, but the debt has actually ballooned from more than $10 trillion to almost $20 trillion.
In American politics today, democracy is virtually the same as elections. The most distinguishing characteristic for all candidates is their fight for votes, creating a prevalent atmosphere of populism. The Californian state government’s bankruptcy demonstrated this so-called politics of populism. In order to get more votes, politicians asked for tax reductions — first for property taxes, and then for car taxes — leading to the state government going bankrupt. When the state government wanted to reinstate the car tax, the state legislature intervened, worsening the financial situation.
Seen in a historical fashion, the people who established America were much more cautious than contemporary politicians about democracy. They tended to lean toward “republic” and “rule of law” to prevent populism brought by democracy. However, in today’s world, can America really overcome these serious problems in their own system? If a financial crisis that made most Americans lose their assets cannot bring the necessary reform for the political system, then it must mean that the self-correcting ability of the American political system is weakening. This is not only sad for American democracy; there are also deeper reasons for the change.
Alienation in the Power Structure
The three powers in the “separation of powers” are all in the political domain. A modern country needs to have a healthy balance in the political, social, and economic areas in order to operate normally; the powers have to demonstrate a balance that benefits most people. However, in today’s America, capital power is dominating political and social power; it is fully organized and mostly controls political power, as well as being embedded in social power, such as control of the mainstream media, the creation of social discussions, etc. In this way, America’s wealthy members will continue to dominate democracy and the conflict between the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the “one percent” will continue.
The “rule of law” is now in a quandary. Americans have always been proud of their law-governed society. Nowadays, the American style of rule of law has almost become a pseudonym for protecting vested interests and a refusal to change. Professor Stein Ringen of Oxford University has pointed out that lobbying from various special interest groups enables their causes to be protected, and any changes to the status quo require changes to the Constitution, but changing the Constitution requires a stringent process that is almost impossible. A law-governed society is in fact locked in by its own rule of law, and the legal process and procedure have in fact become tools to deny reform. This may act as a revelation to many other countries’ rule of law development.
Changes to the Internal Environment
Since the 1980s, America has put in place a series of financial deregulation policies, creating an under-regulated financial market where fraud was rampant and led to the finance bubble, as well as income disparity and wealth distribution favoring the wealthy and financial organizations. The “financialization” of the American economy has meant that most profit comes from the finance sector and its greedy asset acquisition from all over the world. Unlike in the past, American capital power has a lot less interest in reforming America’s political structure since the current system greatly benefits Wall Street. There is no motivation for change.