The American Slippage toward Plutocracy

By Etzioni, Amitai | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The American Slippage toward Plutocracy

Etzioni, Amitai, Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The American political system is moving ever further away from the ideal of one person, one vote to a political system based on one dollar, one vote. Votes are rarely directly purchased with cash on the barrel. However, the outcome of elections is determined more than ever by the amount of money that a candidate can raise. Funds are used to conduct studies of the emotions and prejudices of the voters; to hire consultants to spin messages that appeal to these feelings; and to create massive television advertisements that carry these spinned messages to the electorate.


True, those with the largest purses and deepest pockets do not always win, but frequently they have a decisive advantage over their opponents. Moreover, once in office, legislators both in Congress and in many state assemblies heed mainly those who have made and are expected to make campaign contributions. In some cases these are individuals (George Soros just made a contribution exceeding fifteen-million dollars and promised to give more), but often these are corporations and associations, especially large groupings of special interests. Among the major donors are the real estate lobby, banks, numerous industrial groups, labor unions, and the National Rifle Association.

Most of these funds do not flow into the personal pockets of legislators to enrich their way of life, but rather they are dedicated to their election or reelection. The costs of being elected are so high in many Congressional districts that members of Congress, especially in the House, spend a good part of their time not legislating or visiting with their constituents, but soliciting funds, including from out-of-state interest groups (or sometimes even out-of-country groups).


Apologists for this thoroughly undemocratic system argue that campaign contributions do not buy legislation, but only "access." They claim that legislators will indeed listen to those who make contributions to their campaigns, but do no more than that. But in a democracy, access should be based on how many voters you have lined up, the potency of your case, and service done for your country--not the size of your bank account. And access leads to influence. Corporations, unions, banks, and the real estate industry would have to be both stupid beyond belief and in violation of fiduciary duties to their shareholders or members if they rained millions on members of Congress without any expected payoff.

Others point out that lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity, meaning that citizens have a right to petition their elected officials about whatever specific causes or interests concern them--whether or not such issues are in the general "public" interest. A leading political scientist, James Q. Wilson, recently wrote an opinion article titled "Pork is Kosher Under Our Constitution." Well, not in my book. It is fully democratic for voters to lobby their elected officials--by writing them, sending petitions, buttonholing them, and bending their ear. But gaining influence by paying cash on the barrel is a form of lobbying that the Constitution hardly favors.

Even if Wilson's premise were true, this would mean that those who can afford to make large donations would be much more likely than less-endowed people and groups to be able to sway those who are supposed to enact laws in the public interest. However, detailed analysis of legislation on both the national and the state levels shows that often the laws that are enacted follow closely the wishes of those with deep pockets and all too often contain direct payoffs to them. (See for instance The Corruption of American Politics by Elizabeth Drew, Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process by Brooks Jackson, and Capital Corruption by Amitai Etzioni.) Much of this payoff is not in the public eye because it is buried in the small print of acts that run into hundreds of pages riddled with tax exemptions, subsidies, loans at below-market interest rates, zoning exceptions, and many other kinds of favors for those who made campaign donations. …

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