There was, in case you missed it, a celebration of American democracy on Tuesday. Family, friends, and big money folks were on Capitol Hill to usher in the latest incarnation of Congress.
Nancy Pelosi gave a gracious speech, just before she passed on the ceremonial giant gavel to the Grim Weeper, John Boehner. And as an African-American president continued to occupy the White’s House, Congressman John Conyers, an African-American Democrat who is now the longest serving member in the People’s House, swore in the Grim Weeper as Speaker.
And an anything-but-grim Joe Biden, who has more fun being Vice President than he is probably entitled to have, had a lot of fun administering the oath of office to newly-elected Senators. So happy was he in his constitutional role, that he didn’t want it to stop. He reportedly asked the television crew if any of them wanted to be sworn in. That’s a man who loves his job, whatever his job is when he’s not swearing in people.
All of this made our democratic system look good. For a day at least, everyone was gathered around the Capitol campfire and you could almost feel the warmth from the collective breath of the Founders.
But our system is not all it should be. Vox reported that over the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections, the 46 Democrats (including the two independents who caucus with them) who will sit as a minority in the U.S. Senate for the next two years actually “got 20 million more votes” than the 54 Republicans who will control the chamber. As Vox notes, though, “Democrats got more Senate seats than their vote share suggested they should” in the 2008 and 2012 elections:
The problem isn’t that the deck is stacked in favor of Republicans. The problem is that the deck is stacked in favor of small states, which receive equal representation in the Senate despite dramatic variance in population. The Senate is a profoundly anti-democratic body and should be abolished.
I’ve preached that sermon before. Many of us know about this gigantic flaw in our system but it’s not going to change anytime soon. Thus, we don’t have a genuine representative democracy. Maybe that’s because not enough time has passed since our founding. Maybe we are still a young democracy. Maybe we are still in a protracted democratic adolescence and we will continue to grow into a more representative adulthood. Maybe someday we will fix such anti-democracy.
Or maybe we are sick. Maybe there is a disease among us that is stunting our growth. Maybe there is more wrong than just that big state-small state problem.
First, consider that although this is the most diverse Congress in history, 83% of our national legislators are white and less than 9% are black. Only 6% are Hispanic. Even more troubling is the fact that 80% of them are men.
Of the 56 new members on the Republican side, 95% of them are white—47 of them are white men and 6 are white women. Yes, I am still talking about the most diverse Congress in history. (On the Democratic side, of the 18 new members, only 61% are white—8 of them are white men and 3 are white women.)
As far as religion, while only about 73% of American adults identify as Christians, 92% of our legislators do—and only one of the 301 Republicans in Congress is not a Christian. Perhaps more disturbing, while 20% of Americans consider themselves “unaffiliated” with any particular religious group, only one person in Congress—not one percent, but one person!—dares to claim she is unaffiliated (Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona).
Now let’s look at wealth. In the last Congress, there were at least 188 millionaires, which is about 35% (and given the intentionally murky rules that govern disclosure of wealth, there is likely more wealthy legislators than we know). Go ahead, survey your neighborhood and see if 35% of them are millionaires. Nah, I’m guessing you don’t have to ask.
Maybe, though, you might want to ask your neighbors about their net worth. The median net worth for an American adult is about $45,000. Yet, according to Roll Call, last year’s “median lawmaker” had “a minimum net worth of $456,522.” Again, I’m guessing you don’t have to ask your neighbors if they’re as wealthy as a median lawmaker.
Now we get to the sickness, which is related to wealthy people and their disproportionate influence on what is supposed to be American democracy. I want to illustrate this point by way of this now famous picture of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie making love to Dallas Cowboys owner and big-time Republican Jerry Jones last Sunday:
I hope they had paper towels handy in Jones’ luxury box.
It turns out that Christie, who (along with the governor of New York) oversees the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is now in hot water over the free tickets and free travel Jones has supplied to Christie so that the governor could attend games and hump the owner, unashamedly, on national TV.
Christie, according to International Business Times, “personally pushed the Port Authority to approve a lucrative contract for a firm part-owned by Jones.” That contract was “to operate the observation deck on the top floor of One World Trade Center.” Who is surprised? People don’t toss money and gifts at politicians just for the hell of it. Just ask former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell—when he gets out of the hoosegow.
At the end of last year, Politico published a piece by Kenneth Vogel (“Big money breaks out”) that began with the following:
The 100 biggest campaign donors gave $323 million in 2014 — almost as much as the $356 million given by the estimated 4.75 million people who gave $200 or less, a POLITICO analysis of campaign finance filings found.
Worst still is that Politico’s analysis did not “include nonprofit groups that spent at least $219 million — and likely much more — but aren’t required to reveal their donors’ identities.”
Politico also notes what it calls,
a surprising decline in the number of regular Americans contributing to campaigns, as well as a shift in political power and money to outside groups unburdened by the contribution restrictions handcuffing the political parties and their candidates.
Taken together, the trend lines reflect a new political reality in which a handful of superaffluent partisans can exert more sway over the campaign landscape than millions of donors of more average means. And that’s to say nothing of the overwhelming majority of voters who never spend so much as a single dime on politics.
The article quotes Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and an activist trying to rid our system of big money:
As you see that your democracy is controlled by a smaller and smaller number of funders, you have less and less interest to be engaged in it.
And if people are less engaged in democracy, then democracy is not really democracy, is it?
But the system does work for those who fund it, that’s for sure. That is why they fund it. Saint and Senator Elizabeth Warren gave an important speech on Wednesday before the AFL-CIO. Part of the speech was about what certainly will once again rear its ugly tax-cutting head now that Republicans control Congress: trickle-down economics. She said:
George Bush Sr. called it voodoo economics. He was right, and let’s call it out for what it is: Trickle-down was nothing more than the politics of helping the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful, and it cut the legs out from under America’s middle class. The trickle-down experiment that began in the Reagan years failed America’s middle class.
I have a pretty good picture of that failure, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal:
That ugly looking hole is voodoo economics working its magic on the American people. It’s the result of what happens when big money people get their way, sometimes by influencing both political parties. Warren said:
Pretty much the whole Republican Party — and, if we’re going to be honest, too many Democrats — talked about the evils of ‘big government’ and called for deregulation. It sounded good, but it was really about tying the hands of regulators and turning loose big banks and giant international corporations to do whatever they wanted to do.
Warren acknowledged that things are better now than when Obama took office and gave him credit. But she also said that, “Despite these cheery numbers, America’s middle class is in deep trouble.” How deep?
These families are working harder than ever, but they can’t get ahead. Opportunity is slipping away. Many feel like the game is rigged against them—and they are right. The game is rigged against them…. The world has changed beneath the feet of America’s working families.
I have another pretty good picture of what a rigged game looks like, also courtesy of The Wall Street Journal:
Trickle-down economics leads to flatlining wages. Who could have guessed that? That’s about as easy as guessing that tossing free NFL luxury-box tickets at a hump-ready Chris Christie will get you some bidness on top of One World Trade Center.
So, what do Republicans, traditional warriors on behalf of the moneyed class, propose to do about the flat line that represents the lack of earnings growth for average Americans? What will be one of the first acts of the 114th Congress—you know, the Congress that is supposed to represent we the people but was pretty much bought and paid for by big donors? Voodoo, anyone? Yes, sir:
House Republicans on Tuesday formally adopted a controversial change to congressional math rules that will most likely make it easier to cut taxes.
As Ronald Reagan—who first brought us voodoo economics—might say, “There they go again.”