We hear a lot of talk these days about “our democracy,” and how in the minds of Progressives that Republicans in particular are undemocratic. Are they really undemocratic because they don’t respect the demos or because they don’t agree with Progressives? At this very moment, Progressives are apoplectic over the prospect that Elon Musk might take over Twitter and once again allow conservative views to be expressed on Twitter. Heaven forbid that a conservative should be able to use Twitter. Isn’t it only democracy if the views expressed are liberal and progressive?
And yet, there is a deeper problem here. It is absolutely farcical to talk about our democracy when the government behaves and pursues policy that is contrary to the will of the people. In a democracy the government theoretically does the will of the people. According to post 2020 election data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), 59.7 percent of voters don’t really believe that the government really considers their feelings, and 63.4 percent don’t believe that they have a say about what the government does. Is this the meaning of our democracy? The political parties debate each other, but don’t represent the interests of the public?
If a majority doesn’t believe that the government cares for its preferences, then where is our supposed democracy? Worse, is the implication that it really does not matter what the public wants so long as the elites that run the country can manipulate public opinion through opinion polling and advertising dollars.
At the same time, it only reinforces the idea that interest groups that spend large sums of money lobbying for what they want are able to get it because their voices are worth more than the general public’s. Of course, this is nothing new. It is well established that government at all levels in the U.S. represents the interests of the rich and powerful. Many studies of Congress make it clear that members of Congress are more responsive to the affluent than they are to the middle class. In fact, they are simply non-responsive to the poor.
Public Choice theorists have long argued that members of Congress are there to serve their own interests. The first objective of members is to be reelected, which requires being more responsive to those who vote and can make campaign contributions. Since the poor are less likely to vote, there is no need to be responsive to them at all. And yet, 62.6 percent of voters thought that there should be limits on campaign spending.
We know from Anthony Downs’s classic An Economic Theory of Democracy that those who govern will purchase the quiescence of the poor through programs that effectively increase their money utility. This then frees them up to serve the interests of those who have money, who will in turn make large contributions to their campaigns to keep them in power. Of course, these same public officials will not do anything which is contrary to the interests of the monied elites.
One might think that when it comes to the economy a good course of action would be a set of policies that help workers, especially those at the bottom, to get ahead. 54.6 percent of voters indicated that economic mobility was harder now than it was twenty years ago. And 26.2 percent indicated that it was a great deal harder.
And yet, voters still believe in the concept of equality of opportunity. 87.2 percent of voters indicated that there was an opportunity for the average person to get ahead. Progressives’ emphasis on equity, however, suggests that there is no real opportunity, or that the only ones who use the language of opportunity are the wealthy who want to preserve the status quo. If there were no opportunity, then voters should be strongly in favor of governmental efforts to reduce income inequality. But only 40.6 percent indicated that they were in favor of such efforts.
57.9 percent of voters said they favored a tax on millionaires while 54 percent of voters favor increasing the minimum wage. The national minimum wage has not been increased since 2007, despite overwhelming public support for its increase. One wonders, then, why the minimum wage hasn’t been increased and why millionaires aren’t paying more taxes. Surely, this appears to be consistent with the idea of a government that isn’t responsive to the demos despite all the empty rhetoric about “our democracy.”
Monied interests obviously have no interest in seeing minimum wages increase because it will force up the wages of workers in those contours above the statutory minimum. Of course, millionaires don’t want to be taxed more if it only applies to them. They will favor increases in tax rates because those increases will have little effect on their effective tax rates due to all their tax deductions. They would prefer to pay higher tax rates to pay for programs for those at the bottom than the higher wages that may enable ordinary workers to seize opportunities.
Perhaps what stands out here is the unwillingness of governing elites to admit that maybe there is still opportunity to get ahead. After all, it is easier to downplay that in an effort to divert attention from the fact that on issues that many workers may consider to be more important, there either are no answers or that the answers are contrary to the elites interests.
Still, they insist on bandying the term “our democracy” as if stated enough it will be true, even though nobody in power is interested in listening to the input of the masses, or taking them seriously. Of course, the elites could respond that the masses are simply too stupid to understand the issues, and that they aren’t capable of democracy.
On the issue of whether politics and/or government is too complicated to understand, only 16.5 percent said most of the time compared to 21.3 percent half of the time, and 37 percent some of the time. And yet, on the issue of whether important political issues are understood, 75.1 percent indicated that they understood political issues moderately well to extremely well.
It would then appear that we are back to the inconvenient truth that governing elites who use the term “our democracy” really have nothing but contempt for democracy because, after all, they would be forced to confront the inconvenient reality that the masses really do have human agency and can decide what they want as opposed to being dictated to by the elites who always know better.