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Our Broken Political System

Eric Alterman challenges the notion that the United States is the most successful liberal democracy in the world by looking at our dysfunctional political system.

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Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has  proposed a significant slashing of Canada’s defense budget, bringing the overall cut to nearly 10 percent of what had formerly been projected, while Washington lawmakers may not respond to the public's desire to reduce U.S. defense spending.
<br /> (AP/ Mark Graham)
Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has  proposed a significant slashing of Canada’s defense budget, bringing the overall cut to nearly 10 percent of what had formerly been projected, while Washington lawmakers may not respond to the public's desire to reduce U.S. defense spending.
(AP/ Mark Graham)

Much of Washington is in a panic about the possibility of $500 billion in sequestered defense spending over the next 10 years should both sides of Congress fail to reach a budget deal for the coming fiscal year, yet a significant majority of Americans appear to be looking forward to just such an outcome.

According to a recent survey by the Stimson Center and the Program for Public Consultation, this roughly two-thirds majority (including those who actively support it—44 percent of those surveyed believe an immediate 18 percent ($103.5 billion) cut in defense spending would help the economy—along with those who think it won’t make any appreciable difference) turns out to exist even for those living in districts that receive significant amounts of the money in question. And it also holds well for districts that reliably vote red rather than blue. “The idea that Americans would want to keep total defense spending up so as to preserve local jobs is not supported by the data,” according to Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation.

One would think that in a democracy—or even, to be more precise, in a democratic republic—that such views would carry some weight. Elected politicians would, at least theoretically, be expected to either represent such views or at least respond to them. But you can forget about that. On occasion, democratic pressure can build on representatives to either change a position or lose their jobs, making life sufficiently uncomfortable for them. But this is rarer than a red heifer.

Owing largely to the power of money in our politics, the views of mere voters carry virtually no weight in determining representatives’ views. What matters is pressure. And defense contractors enjoy the same advantages that, say, bank and insurance companies do when it comes to lobbying, campaign contributions, vacation junkets, and future job offers.

The defense industry also boasts plenty of unique advantages. The most obvious of these is the remarkable number of high-paying jobs they control. Then there are the research funds they distribute. Additionally they have fleets of jets and helicopters at their disposal with which they ferry lawmakers around—often to vacation spots but also to campaign appearances, thereby saving the politicians hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs they would otherwise have to pay in airfare.

Meanwhile, not many people vote for or against a candidate on the basis of a promise to cut defense spending and even fewer give money to a candidate for the same reason. Indeed, while the long-term economic interest of our country may demand it, almost nobody has a personal interest in seeking to use our corrupt campaign practices for the common good.

Of course, it’s not just defense spending—it’s any issue where money and empowered people are capable, in our system, to trump the public good or at least the greater public’s views. In the past the United States has been able to grow at a healthy pace despite these disadvantages, owing in part to our abundant natural resources and to the ability of our political system to negotiate a compromise between competing interests. During the past few decades, however, the system has proven less resilient—again, owing in significant measure to the increasing power of money in our politics, as well as to the recent radicalization of the conservative movement.

While the wealthiest Americans have made out like bandits during this period—using their economic power to game the system through favorable legislation—the vast majority of Americans have either been treading water or losing ground.

According to data from Environics Analytics WealthScapes published in The Globe and Mail, the net worth of the average Canadian household in 2011 trumped the average U.S. household’s net worth, $363,202 to $319,970. Simultaneously, Canada’s unemployment rate is now down to 7.2 percent, while in the United States it’s still stuck a full percentage point higher at 8.2 percent. And these numbers do not include all of the social goods to which Canadians are entitled—the most obvious one being a well-functioning, single-payer health care system.  

It is no surprise, therefore, that as a study recently published in the New York University Law Review pointed out, the U.S. constitutional model is considered obsolete for reasons not only due to its traditional inefficiency—often to be considered a net plus—but for its lack of democratic responsiveness. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in an interview on Egyptian television, admitted, “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

American conservatives consider Canada’s government to be a form of socialism; hell, they consider President Obama’s form of government socialist. This is because, not only does Canada provide its citizens with  health care but it also regulates its key industries—most particularly its banks—for the public good. Paul Martin, Canada’s finance minister during the 1990s (and prime minister from 2003 to 2006), “resisted the siren call of deregulation,” using his words, and toughened up the loan-loss and reserve requirements that governed their behavior and refused them the right to merge as they saw fit. As a result, Canada experienced next to none of the banking-and-housing-driven economic crisis that has bedeviled U.S. politicians and cost so many Americans their jobs and homes during the past four years.

Canada is also extremely welcoming of immigrants. According to Stephen Marche writing about this issue in Bloomberg Businessweek, "Of all the world’s societies, Canada’s is one of the most open to immigrants,” though it insists they come legally. (There is a mandatory one-year prison sentence for illegal immigration.)

Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, has also proposed a significant slashing of Canada’s defense budget, bringing the overall cut to nearly 10 percent of what had formerly been projected. These cuts, moreover, are all drawn from a basis of less than 1.5 percent of GDP spending or about a quarter of what the United States spends per citizen.

Of course Canada isn’t “socialist” according to any intelligent person’s understanding of the term. The state does not own the means of production nor does it encroach much on the ownership of private property. Canada is, in fact, a functioning capitalist democracy in which all people—rather than merely people with access to massive amounts of money—have a say in their government’s decisions. Perhaps that’s why its conservative party feels a need to act responsibly to all its citizens, rather than merely those with wealth and power.

So the next time you hear some cable TV bloviator call the United States the “best” country in the world, inquire about the category. We’ve known for a long time that it sure isn’t because of slipping educational achievements, shockingly persistent infant mortality, declining social and economic mobility, and way-too-expensive health care. And now we are coming to realize that our vaunted constitutional system of government is failing us, too, because wealth trumps the common good almost every time. This sure as heck isn’t democracy. What do we have left?

Sorry, but that’s another story.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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