Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Problems with Democracy II

In my last post I focused on the problems with American democracy from the constituency angle, namely the long-term-vision shortcomings of the American voter and how the inherent necessity of representatives to represent these voters often precludes sound, sustainable public policy. But there’s another, arguably more important, facet of the problematic tendencies of our democracy. And that, ironically, is that the American voter doesn’t have enough say in the process. At least, relative to the sway that well-financed organizations and companies can hold.

It seems that politicians are much more interested in the concerns of special interest groups than with those of their own constituents. Why is it that the largest corporations and trade associations in this country have so much power over the way Congress votes? I completely appreciate that these companies are, in many ways, vital to the American economy. They provide large shares of our GDP and employ many of our citizens. But the Constitution—for good reason—charges elected representatives to represent the people, not the private sector. Often, the interests of profit-maximizing corporations directly oppose the public interest. But the voice of the public interest pales in comparison to those of special interests, or at least it falls upon all-too-deaf ears.

Ordinary Americans don’t have the time or resources to be able to share their concerns with their elected officials the way paid professionals do. And when there’s a sizable number of largely poor people who aren’t having basic needs met (e.g. health care), you can bet they won’t be paying a lobbyist to show up in the halls of Congress and ask for a public option in health care reform. In too many cases, people whose needs are not being met are forced to rely on nonprofit organizations that are funded by wealthy idealists, and the genuine morality and conscience of politicians (for those select few who still retain these rare attributes).

But that’s really not good enough. Corporations should have a voice in Congress, but only to the extent that their dealings help the national economy and help keep people working. Unfortunately, much more powerful factors are also at work that shouldn’t be. The whole concept of campaign contributions has completely reshaped our democracy. There have been many laws put forth, and several passed, by those "moral" politicians mentioned above, which seek to reform campaign financing, but they are few and far between, and do not address the some of most pressing of the problems.

Why is the corn industry so heavily subsidized when those subsidies serve to hurt small farms, impoverish farmers in other countries, and make our food substantially less healthful? Why is the health insurance industry making such huge profits while dozens of millions of people are without health insurance? Why are utilities still permitted to build coal power plants, pollute our atmosphere, and heat our planet?

Money from organizations and corporations given to political campaigns needs to be dramatically curbed if we want any hope of giving the people a true voice in this country. And in the meantime, let's see to it that there's a great deal more transparency with regard to special interest group visits to Congressional offices, and other aspects of the political process infiltrated by special interests. The political process should have absolutely nothing to do with money. It should be reserved for those who, rich or poor, feel a genuine desire to serve their country. And that means enacting laws that benefit the citizens of this country, not the wealthiest and loudest interest groups.

Images: health care rally (Nashville scene blog), special interests (, money barrow (NorCal blogs)


  1. The day the agribusiness lobby loses it's death-grip on Congress will be a day to remember. Some (possibly poisoned) food for thought:
    Antibiotic-resistant salmonella, flame-retardant meat:
    Flammable chicken nuggets (preview of the Omnivore's Dilemma):

  2. One of the most powerful lobbies, and one that affects the most people on a constant basis. Now why can't small farmers have as strong a voice as these guys? Oh yeah, because they aren't making the same ridiculous profits with massive, unsustainable, and often nutritionally harmful operations.

    Another gem from Sarah that shows Google map images of some of the most extreme Ag operations around the country: 10 U.S. food policy destinations

  3. One more onion layer deeper, it is curious to note that the same people who are disenfranchised and adversely affected by factory farms and heavy gov subsidies are the ones that are voting for them in the first place (ala "What's the Matter with Kansas" by Thomas Frank)

    ... oh great, now you have me talking like a college person again