The Problems of Democracy

It is well known that in midterm elections, the president’s party loses its majority because the people become more and more dissatisfied as the years go by. This could be seen as a chance to ask: what are presidents doing that makes everyone want to throw them out after two years? Instead, voters exercise their right to complain. And the media always has a bevy of professional complainers on hand to show how it’s done.

“Money ruins elections”

This is an old complaint, irrespective of modern technologies and laws. What is the reason given? The politicians are beholden to their money givers; a quid pro quo must be involved and therefore, whether it leads to corruption or not, it gives the appearance of its possibility, so it calls the process into question.

This seems to be a specifically American issue. In other advanced democracies, you don’t hear that money ruins politics because of the funding of elections. In the rest of the democratic world, election campaigns are funded by the political parties and not so expensive. Second, they get money from the party membership. In normal parliamentary democracies, parties chose candidates; the different factions form coalitions and come up with someone to head the ticket. In America, the mass parties refuse to choose in this way. They demand that the same voters who pick the aspiring office holder be invited to pick from the various prospects. So instead of various wannabes trying to convince party delegates that they would make great candidates, they have to convince the public. The various candidates for candidacy have to prove they can put together a campaign without the support of the parties in order to get the support of the parties. All these politicians who want to be nominated have to prove they can finance and run a campaign without a party organization. Then come the weekly reports about how much money each candidate is raising.

On the one hand, the candidates all have their hands out asking people with money to finance their election campaigns, and this has the appearance of sleaze. On the other hand, this is considered the proper way of finding the best applicant for the job: you have to prove you are attractive to money before you are attractive to voters. In the primary election, if there are no incumbents, twenty or so people who are all in the business of creating political organizations try to convince the voters that they are presidential because they can raise 10 million dollars for a campaign. This is considered proof of eligibility. Why shouldn’t a candidate first have to prove that money is interested in this guy? After all, as chief executive he will be in charge of supervising an economic life which is all about money. It fits in perfectly with America.

So what are the wealthy and the big corporations thinking when they donate a million dollars to a campaign – typically, to both parties? What interest do they have in this? In the first instance, this is a public service they are doing: they are financing elections because they are private competitions and they need to be financed. Second, those who can afford to hand over 10 million dollars to both campaigns are proving themselves important economic interests whose success is also part of the success of America as a whole. Their lobbyists get recognized. All the players — the big unions, corporations, investors — go to Washington and chat with the politicians about their particular economic interests. They are looking for sympathy for their cause, but in competition with all the other lobbyists. For the money, they get listened to.

This is a kind of legal corruption, but its more than tolerated, it’s expected: politicians are supposed to know the economic interests in the country because they supervise capitalism. How else can they know them unless they talk? This forms the ground for all the criticism.

“Dark money”

Election campaigns cost tons of money, everyone has their hand out — this looks bad. Good government groups have been bemoaning it for years. This can be made to look even more sinister if it’s called “dark money.” The NY Times editorialized the day after the midterms that we don’t know who is financing the campaigns. They say funny things like: “Who gave that money? It could have been anyone who wants to be a political player but lacks the courage to do so openly.” What if the money was known? Then what? How would this change anything? They imply that if it’s secret, it must benefit the rich. But if giving money secretly benefits the rich, then it must also benefit them if they give it openly. Are the rich are giving money secretly because they don’t want it known, as the New York Times suggests, that the system benefits them?

Bottom line: there can be corruption; it happens; but it can’t be that the whole political process is corrupt. There are competing interests in specific laws or policies which are passed or not. It can’t be that the corporations are buying policies: these things are discussed by 535 senators and congressmen in open hearings, as well as in committee hearings where all sides are heard and votes are taken. Each policy might have its winners and losers, but there are always winners and losers.

People feel that this money-raising opens the door to shady business, which it does. Whether they do or not is another matter. But the purpose of elections is different. It is to legitimate an office by the fact that its holder battled his way through the competition and the public made its choice. Lovers of democracy are truly concerned about all the money floating around in the election process because a democratic state legitimizes itself by the fact that the people choose their leaders. Anything that suggests that it is not the people who are choosing, but money, tarnishes the legitimacy of office.

Imagine if a politician was running who said: I don’t know any businessmen or what they want. Everyone expects the guy managing a capitalist economy has a good feel for the economy. Everyone recognizes the success of business is what the whole system is about. The interest of the rich really is the ultimate interest of the public power itself. It totally depends on the success of the wealthy accumulating money. If business is not successful, there is no growth, no investment, no jobs, no social programs. This lousy dependency on the economic success of the rich could something to criticize – but it’s outside the political debate. You can always vote for somebody else, but not for a different economic system.


For some modern democrats, elections cause problems in another way. The New York Times recently ran an op-ed titled “Cancel the midterms” by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan with the key sentence: this is “an election that’s almost certain to create greater partisan divisions, increase gridlock and render governance of our complex nation even more difficult.” This recognizes that elections interfere with the functioning of government. It’s true: during elections politicians put their fate in the hands of those they rule and so have to listen to them for once and think about what they need in their lives. The idea of the authors is that the election cycle and midterms disrupt rule because permanent campaigning is not ruling. At the end of the article, they say: “all these elections make it hard for the government to tackle the long term challenges facing the nation.” An amazing admission: the politicians are debating programs that everybody knows are going to be unpopular. Instead of asking what kind of a system is this? they say: the popularity of rule must not interfere with rule.

That’s actually the reason for a bicameral system in the first place: one house is campaigning full time and is therefore considered too close to the people because it’s always concerned with winning votes. The other chamber, the Senate, says: no, the majority doesn’t always get what it wants. This is a way of dealing with this contradiction of democracy: putting the fate of the state in the hands of the electorate and making sure the electorate is not the one ruling. The Senate represents the functionality of rule; the House represents the legitimacy of rule. And the state needs legitimacy because it necessarily undertakes measures which will harm those it rules.

After the midterm

Last week Obama announced he would work with the Republicans because the voters “want us to get stuff done.” What is it that politicians get done? They are not just taking care of clear tasks like running a DMV or cleaning the streets. They are laying down the rules for the whole society from positions of power. They are deciding which interests succeed and which don’t. It’s a contradiction to think that the true purpose of power is the well-being of those subjected to it.

After any election in a functioning democracy, the losing politician has to hammer it into his followers that their opposition has to be loyal and wishes luck to the winners. It is necessary to remind every voter what they already presume by voting: this wasn’t about changing the political economy of the state, but just the question of which party is going to be handing the reins of power to the next one for a while.

That’s why after an election there is a public display where the loser says: sorry about the vicious campaign; in the heat of the moment I said things I didn’t mean; he’s really a good guy, now we have to unite again. It is not just words but a necessary step in the election process to say the election is over and we are no longer putting rule in the hands of the people – now we are going to rule and everyone has to agree. This demarcation is necessary for this kind of politics.

Elections are divisive because they are the one moment in which rule is actually put at the mercy of the people instead of ruling them. It goes against the character of rule that the continuity of rule is put at stake by asking the ruled to approve it. This is a nervous moment in every democracy. But when everyone shares a common purpose – belief in the American dream and way of life — this divisive form of politics is really stable.

So a Middle East war is passed on from Bush Sr. to Clinton to Bush Jr. to Obama and no serious politician ever says they are against the purpose of controlling the Middle East. Just: the other guy isn’t doing a good job of it. As long as the content of politics continues, this works out fine. Elections are the political form by which such policies continue.

Geoffrey MacDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.

Geoffrey McDonald is an editor at Ruthless Criticism. He can be reached at: