Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Study: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy

Due to the similarity between the two parties in the U.S. and enormous barriers facing any would-be third party, I have mused that the U.S. is almost a one-party state. I mean, okay, there are two parties, but the U.S. just doesn't feel like a democracy.

A new study applies some numeric analysis to the decisions that are made in Washington. I haven't actually read the study yet, but apparently it finds that Washington's behavior is strongly correlated with what the most elite want, not the common people. Apparently it doesn't directly say the U.S. is an oligarchy, but an oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people--and you don't have to run a study to get the feeling that this is true, given some matching definition of "small".

Lawrence Lessig, formerly my favorite copyright activist, has turned himself into my favorite campaign finance reform activist. He points out that all members of congress (remember, that dysfunctional bunch of people that makes most decisions about federal law?) are completely dependent on campaign contributions in order to be re-elected, and therefore spend up to 70% of their time on fundraising. Isn't it logical to expect, then, that the behavior of lawmakers depends on what the funders want? Well, I ask you: how many funders are there?
  • 0.26% gave $200 or more
  • 0.05% gave the maximum amount to a single candidate ($2,600)
  • 0.01% $10,000 or more to (multiple) federal candidates
  • 0.000042% (132 Americans) gave 60% of all SuperPAC money spent in the last election
Lawrence Lessig suggests that 0.05% is the most relevant number in his TED talk about "The Republic We Must Reclaim":
And the question we need to ask is what does it do to them, these humans, as they spend their time behind the telephone calling people they've never met, but calling the tiniest slice of the 1 percent? As anyone would, as they do this, they develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money. The become, in the words of "The X-files," shapeshifters, as they constantly adjust their views in light of what they know will help them to raise money, not on issues 1 to 10, but on issues 11 to 1,000. OK, now every single one of you know this. Yet, you ignore it. You ignore it. This is an impossible problem. You focus on the possible problems, like eradicating polio from the world or taking an image of every single street across the globe or building a fusion factory in your garage. These are the manageable problems...
Of course, this only works within limits: following the "money election", the masses ultimately do get to vote in the general election. But remember, there are only two choices, and both can be bought--not always, but the majority of the time. Moreover, in recent years we have seen remarkably effective tricks by elites in the media to alter public opinion. For instance, whenever the copyright debate reaches television, it is filtered through the lens of each giant media company on which the debate is presented, companies that have a vested interest in the excesses of the current system. And then of course there's the conservative media, which has made excellent use of language to frame the debate in such a way that poor people may actually feel good about lowering taxes on the "job creators" and removing social services as a natural consequence (my own parents are suckered by these lines of reasoning.) In fairness, the liberal media too have had some success promoting their false truths, for example equating sex with love and framing opposition to gay marriage as "bigotry" and equating it with racism (despite the fact that many opposed to gay marriage are not opposed to the right to have gay sex, at least for those not of their faith, and often have gay friends). Counterpoint: you may love your best friend, but if you're straight and don't have sex with him, you can't marry him. Ergo, sex is the heart of the issue, not love. That's why it's "gay marriage", not "love marriage", "civil union" or "personal partnership".

Anyway, looking into history, it is impressive how well the elites can capture the hearts and minds of the masses:
Percentage-wise very few Americans actually owned slaves, yet it's estimated that somewhere between half a million and 1.5 million men served in the Confederate Army. That's a large number of people willing to die to protect the rights of the rich to own another human being. I have little doubt that if there were some kind of mythical Civil War today in the US that millions would willingly lay down their lives to protect the money of the rich and receive absolutely nothing in return for their willingness to fight and possibly die for somebody else's money. - random guy
Whatever your opinion on these issues, you'd be foolish to claim that the media does not influence you, or to claim the media is not biased. Even if you don't watch TV, you can be influenced by your peers who do, who were in turn influenced by the media. If you're American and not convinced, take it from me, as someone living in Canada: Americans believe different things than the rest of the world because American media focuses on different issues and emphasizes different claims than media in the rest of the world. In Canada we have a lousy electoral system, nearly as bad as the U.S., yet our parties and media rely on different rhetoric and biases than your media, even though we're neighbors, speak the same language (er, apologies to Quebec) and share similar interests. Or listen to this guy:
I'm from Europe. I know what it is like if you actually DO have parties with diverging world views. There are countries where you actually have everything from far left to far right to choose from. When you have such a variety, you tend to not even notice the, from an Euro point of view, rather subtle difference between Republicans and Democrats. Every time I watch a debate between two of your candidates, it feels like the host is trying very, very hard to come up with questions that would not get the same answer from them. You get to hear the most outlandish topics being discussed because those are simply the ONLY petty rubbish they don't agree on. - random guy
The wealthy funders, it seems to me, can directly influence politicians on "issues 11 to 1,000" as Lessig says: but in order to influence politicians on "issues 1 to 10", issues that the public watches, they must influence the public too. And so they do.

See also: Move to amend

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