American Culture

Time to revisit high-school civics lesson: Does your vote matter any more?

I first voted in an American national election in 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson ran against Barry (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) Goldwater, the elder-statesman conservative who later successfully persuaded Richard Nixon to resign.

I voted for LBJ. The landslide swept Goldwater into a conservative backwater.

I have voted in every national election since then. But not voting this November has crept into my mind. And it’s not because I believe both candidates for president are hapless morons incapable of governing with some degree of effectiveness. (Yeah, I’ve got my doubts about both of these guys. They’re not that different.) And it’s not because I’ve grown weary of my own senator, the estimable three-termer Chuck Schumer, glomming onto every microphone and minicam he can find.

No, it’s because I’ve come to believe massive amounts of money from very few people have trumped my individual vote. And that money — much of it political largesse from billionaires — has made my individual vote a largely ineffective tool with which to dislodge an incumbent.

If you are my age, peeking up at the age of 70, you probably had a high-school civics teacher who taught you that the right to vote demands that a citizen participate in democracy by actually voting. That vote, you were told, was your path to holding your president, your senator, your local councilwoman or councilman, your dogcatcher accountable for their acts in office. You and I were taught that using our votes, we could “throw the bums out.”

How much faith do you now hold in that high-school civics lesson?

It is well nigh impossible, at least in Congress, to get rid of moronic, ineffective incumbents. Their messaging machines, fueled by millions of dollars, create too much noise to counter with the small signal I can individually generate — or you and I can collectively generate.

In the first year I voted for a congressional representative, 1964, the reelection rate of incumbents was 87 percent. In 1994, Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” and its attendant “Contract With America” led to the GOP taking hold of both the House and the Senate. The reelection rate of incumbents was still 90 percent. Even in the 2010 midterms when the tea party-enhanced GOP brought in 80-plus freshman House members, the reelection rate of incumbents was the lowest since 1970 — but still 85 percent.

Votes used to be able to dislodge a sitting U.S. senator with more ease. Reelection rates fell from 80 percent in 1964 to 55 percent in 1980. But the ’80s saw the coming maturation of direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie’s impact on right-wing fundraising and conservative philosophy. The lowest Senate reelection rate of incumbents was 75 percent in 1986. It has averaged almost 93 percent for the past two and a half decades.

Yes, I know: It’s old news that incumbents are reelected with profound regularity. But why?

It’s the money. I’ve written about campaign finance for the past seven years and reported on the growth of money injected into national politics. My high-school civics teacher could never have imagined that a single American citizen — say, billionaire Sheldon Adelson — could keep afloat by himself a presidential campaign of another American citizen, that of Newt Gingrich — by giving his backers $21 million. And then switch allegiance to yet another candidate — Mitt Romney — and give his allies $10 million. But Gingrich had only one billionaire. This week, he claimed he lost the nomination to Romney because the former Massachusetts governor had 16 — that’s 16 — billionaires backing his candidacy.

I’m not arguing that oh god, this amount of money is evil. But ask: If either Gingrich or Romney became president, does this amount of money lead you to believe that either would be accountable to voters instead of Adelson? Not me.

In this era in which money is an erosive force in politics, accountability has been stolen from the voters and handed to men and women who are billionaires. That money is primarily used for messaging, telling you and me why the other guy in the race is evil, incompetent, duplicitous, socialist, or robber baron. Hardly any is spent researching ways to make Americans — all Americans — better off.

You and I no longer matter in the minds of far too many national politicians (especially senators, of whom many consider themselves presidents-in-waiting). Oh, they say they’re “doing the business of the American people.” But when merely one man or one woman can fund a senator or representative’s entire political career, to whom do you believe that politician feels accountable? Whose business is that politician actually tending?

I no longer believe she or he is looking after my business.

photo credit: Talking Points Memo

3 replies »

  1. We’ve always known that there were political bosses – but those bosses reflected actual constituencies, however biased. What we have here is elected officials as middle management, answering to their CEO’s. America has been laughed at by Europeans for their attempts to make aristocrats of movie stars and millionaires. Now we have an aristocracy – of billionaires who will rule over us like aristocrats in the 14th century. Ah, well…maybe the plague will make a come back and relieve many of us of what looks to be a very unhappy future….

  2. What is needed is REAL campaign finance reform, but as long as the “moronic, ineffective incumbents” are the ones making the laws, what is the chance of passing any, let alone any major, reform?