Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is American democracy dead?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
April 27, 2014 -- Updated 1203 GMT (2003 HKT)
In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908. In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908.
HIDE CAPTION
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new study shows that the wealthy have far more influence than the average American
  • Julian Zelizer says study raises disturbing questions about power of campaign money
  • If wealthy shape policy, the inequality divide in America will only get worse, he says
  • Zelizer: It may take a constitutional amendment, and state action, to reform system

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- American democracy faces a very real threat. The power of money is overwhelming the power of average voters to influence government decisions. While this is an old lament in politics, social scientists are now finding very concrete proof about the damage being done.

The problem revolves around the way in which we fund our political campaigns. Opponents of campaign finance reform are having a field day. Over the past few years, they have watched with delight as the political parties and Supreme Court have slowly eviscerated the Watergate-era campaign finance reforms.

When the Supreme Court issued decisions citing constitutional barriers to the regulation of campaign finance and independent organizations have figured out new ways to influence politicians, opponents of reform proclaim that the system is better off. At a minimum, they argue that money and lobbying has always been part of this nation's politics: There is nothing much to do about it and the republic has survived.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Their arguments ignore the horrendous consequences that the influence of private money has on our democratic system.

The opponents of reform turn a blind eye toward the substantial evidence of how the nation is creating an unequal playing field that leaves many citizens virtually disenfranchised even when they retain the precious right to vote. Policies such as the tax system are skewed toward wealthier Americans, thereby worsening the cycle of inequality from which the nation can't seem to escape. As Elizabeth Warren recounts in her new book, the big banks had overwhelming influence as policymakers handled the crash of 2008.

At the most obvious level, the constant stories about the influence of money and lobbyists fuel public skepticism about the democratic process. The disillusionment caused by the role of money in politics discourages political participation.

But the effects are even worse than we might think. In an academic article that will make heads turn, the political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) have found that as a result of our political processes, wealthier Americans have disproportionate influence on the kinds of public policies the government enacts. Average citizens matter, but only when they are in agreement with wealthier Americans. If not, they tend to lose.

Sen. Warren: The game is rigged
Obama: Pay inequality's an embarrassment
The fight to close the wage gap
Oxfam: $110 trillion owned by top 1%
What causes income inequality in the U.S.?

Based on a sizable database of public opinion and a study of 1,779 policy initiatives over 20 years, Gilens and Page report that a majority of Americans have little or no influence on the kinds of policies that the government produces. "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose." Because of the way our system works, wealthy interests have the ability to block changes that they oppose.

Wealthy interests were almost 15 times as likely to obtain their preferences from policymakers on issues like tax policy as were ordinary citizens.

This is the culmination of changes that have been taking place for several decades. The mobilization of business interests and wealthier Americans accelerated in the 1970s after the role of the federal government had expanded.

As Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker showed in their outstanding book, "Winner Take All Politics," the strengthening and thickening of the organization of the corporate and financial communities in Washington resulted in highly sophisticated lobbying operations and campaign donation techniques that enhanced their ability to influence policymakers.

Over the next few decades, the result was congressional decisions such as regressive tax cuts that favored wealthier Americans (starting with Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut) and economic deregulations that have favored their interests, such as freeing up the financial sector in the 1990s.

At the same time that wealthier interests were mobilizing to fight against campaign finance regulations put into place after Watergate, presidential candidates in both parties, including George W. Bush (in 2000, for the primary elections) and Barack Obama (in 2008, for the general election), ultimately decided to reject the publicly financed campaign system that had required them to accept spending limits.

The political parties introduced new mechanisms, such as soft money, to get around regulations while the Supreme Court dismantled the 1974 reforms through a series of historic decisions.

One of the most damaging results of these changes has been that the political benefits flowing to those with greater financial means worsens the economic inequality that has become such a defining part of modern times.

These kinds of findings should be shocking to Americans and offer more than enough evidence about the dangers we are unleashing through the continued dismantling of the campaign finance laws and the failure to impose serious regulations on lobbying.

For all the arguments about free speech and the need to compete, we should take a close look at a political system in which most Americans don't have a voice in the process and where, even worse, the outcomes are biased toward certain segments of the nation who can pay to play. This is one issue where the left and right, as well as the slim center, can find agreement.

Given Supreme Court decisions such as FEC v. Citizens United and FEC v. McCutcheon, a constitutional amendment might be necessary if there is to be any possibility of limiting contributions and spending. In the meantime, states might become the central arena for experimenting with new reforms.

Unless reform takes place, Gilens and Page have shown us that the nation is allowing money to slowly undercut the democracy that built America.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT