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We the Losers

News & Features | October 29, 2012

How the 2012 election sets the stage for the problematic politics that our generation will inherit.

November 6 will mark the first time that most current college students have the opportunity to vote in a presidential election. This is our political coming-of-age, our entry into the world of enfranchisement and of endless pandering based on our demographic and geographical position within society. The impact we face from the outcome of elections is becoming less abstract as we enter the job market and the purview of the IRS. The policies and platforms of the two major parties are undoubtedly important, as the outcome of this election will determine aspects of our life for years to come—the state of our healthcare, financial regulation, Pell Grants, and tax policy, just to name a few. However, the 2012 election has a parallel importance for our generation. The contours and characteristics of this election cycle reflect the state of our democracy; they act as a bellwether for the politics that we will inherit.

Forty years ago, George McGovern became the first presidential nominee to emerge from the same primary process that he himself had redefined years earlier. For the first time, the electorate was radically empowered in primary elections, making McGovern the first “grassroots candidate.” The campaign was also the first to feature the ramifications of the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, which required campaigns to disclose financial contributions. Richard Nixon’s crushing defeat of McGovern in November heralded a significant realignment of both parties’ bases. The tactics used by Nixon during the campaign were also notably new, and in the ensuing months they would turn into the Watergate scandal that destroyed his presidency and sent the institution into an unprecedented crisis.

Much like the 1972 election, the 2012 election reveals underlying changes in the way our democratic process works. Over the past few years, we have seen a growing influence of money in politics, modern tactics of voter suppression, and intensifying institutional failures in Washington. These shifts are combining in a broad theme of disenfranchisement and plutocratic tendencies that is solidifying in this year’s campaign, acutely affecting the politics we will face for decades to come.

Money, Money, Money

It is an oft-repeated phrase that there’s too much money in American politics, but it has never been true to the extent that it is today. The cost of the 2012 election has increased from the 2008 record of $5.3 billion to a projected $6 billion. More telling even than the net increase in campaign spending is the change in the composition of where all this money comes from: in the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, a 5-4 ruling determined that corporations had a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertising. That same year, outside groups spent $489 million in the midterm elections—a 450 percent increase from the previous midterm elections in 2006. The “super PACs” (Political Action Committees) created by the Citizens United decision have already spent over $689 million this election cycle, compared to $239 million in the entire 2008 election. Besides the drastic increase in the absolute cost of elections, unlimited corporate spending also allows for large national fundraisers to exert greater control over local candidates, elevating campaigns of their choosing and destroying those they deem unfit.

The influence of money on politics does not stop with campaigns alone. Earlier this year, political scientist Martin Gilens of Princeton University published an extensive study in which he outlined how economic inequality affects political power. His analysis of the past four decades of federal legislation showed that the probability of policy change was proportionally responsive to the percent of Americans favoring the change, except when the preferences of low- and high-income voters differed. In these cases, the 90th income percentile’s preferences still had a demonstrable effect on actual policy change, whereas preferences of low-income groups had virtually no effect.

Gilens’ conclusion that affluence buys political power is particularly relevant to an era in which income inequality in the United States is at a peak and campaign spending is running rampant. The 2012 election has featured such characters as Harold Simmons, a billionaire banking tycoon who has spent $18 million supporting Republican candidates individually and through his corporation. Set against the shadow of the Citizens United decision, 2012 has been the first major election cycle to feature a new explosion of outside spending on elections, and the trend has been a foreboding one.

Voter Suppression

As the influence of the affluent increases, the issue of ballot access for disadvantaged Americans has been repeatedly taken to the courts this year. Since the 2008 election, several state legislatures around the country have been enacting laws that require voters to bring photo IDs to the ballot booth. Ten states have photo ID requirements that will be in effect this November. The poor, the young, and poorer racial minorities in urban areas who do not have drivers’ licenses are disproportionately represented in the population that does not own a valid photo ID. In addition, recently married or divorced people whose names do not match those on their identification could also be affected.

Proponents argue that the laws are required to combat voter fraud. Evidence of fraud, however, is scant—a five-year investigation by the Justice Department culminating in 2007 revealed only five cases of fraudulent voting in that period. Critics have compared the laws to poll taxes, accusing them of disenfranchisement. The demographics most affected by the laws are found solidly in the base of the Democratic Party. Although the Republican drafters of the law have repeatedly claimed that this is a non-partisan issue, Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai tellingly slipped up during a June speech when he said, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania—done.”

State courts have temporarily blocked voter ID laws in various states this year, but the battle is far from over. In six states—including crucial swing states Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—some verdicts have merely delayed the laws until after the election, while others have punted the decision to 2013 or 2014, off-cycle years when the cases will be less controversial. The next election will feature more of these laws kicking into effect, potentially altering the electoral map by skewing the two major parties’ demographic bases.

Institutional Failure

Perhaps most pressing of all is the exacerbation of institutional failure that Washington has seen over the past four years. Our political inheritance has given us problematic institutions, such as the Electoral College and the Senate, whose undemocratic implications are severely affecting the way elections are conducted.

The Electoral College has been problematic ever since the states’ rights and distinctness began eroding after the Civil War. Built for a time interstate travel and communication were difficult, it is set up to elect presidents based on states’ preferences rather than those of individuals. With the advent of modern polling technology, presidential candidates are incentivized to maximize electoral vote gains by focusing on a few key swing states, an exclusive group that at most includes 11 states. Advertisement investment and candidate appearances are increasingly focused on the few states where polls are close, and the debates have featured both candidates pivoting to issues that are pertinent to voters in those states. As of October 21, the Gallup Tracking Poll suggests the plausibility of an outcome whereby Obama wins the Electoral College while losing the popular vote in an outcome more skewed than Bush’s 2000 victory.

Meanwhile, Congress has mired itself in greater gridlock than ever before. An arcane piece of Senate rules allows for the filibuster, a process of blocking legislative procedure that requires 60 votes to overcome. This allows for the minority party in the Senate to block any legislation, a tactic that has been used to an alarming degree in the past few years. As a consequence, this Congress has been the most unproductive since the Second World War, passing almost no major. With six-year terms and tiered elections, it is unlikely that either of the two parties will succeed in getting a safe super-majority with which to enact their legislation.

What this all means for us

The spread of influential faceless money, voter suppression tactics, and institutional failure has corrupted the political process, resulting in systemic changes to the state of our democracy. In recent years, we have begun to lose any semblance of a national debate. Meanwhile, large campaign donors push the two major parties into a political space of their preference; the Republican party has even taken to altering its electorate. D.C. has been exhibiting an electoral failure of unprecedented magnitude. The combination of these factors means that major national questions such as marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage have been relegated to ballot measures and heated court cases, instead of being debated by our duly elected government.

Every political ad seems to feature a comment on how “we are burdening the next generation” with our national debt. However, while the national debt is repeatedly discussed in the context of tax policy for the rich and spending cuts on entitlement programs, other issues of major long-term importance are routinely ignored. Where is the debate on the burden of climate change and energy policy? On the costs of college education? On the ramifications of the large and expensive national security apparatus constructed over the past eleven years? As we evolve into middle-aged America, it remains to be seen whether we will be able to tackle the problems of our generation effectively in a political system that is hurtling towards more and more disenfranchisement.

The future of any country’s politics is nigh impossible to predict. Perhaps the Occupy movement will see a resurgence that tackles the ties between economic inequality and political power. A new civil rights movement may emerge to deal with voter ID laws; or gridlock in government may reach such a height that the party system will realign once more. What we do know is that, however we choose to deal with it, our generation is about to inherit the problematic democracy embodied by the 2012 election.

We inherit both a looming political and economic burden. The problems of campaign finance and voter suppression are long-term ones, to be shaped by battles over many more years and elections. They will affect the way our generation interacts with politics, much in the way that newly empowered primary elections and Watergate-style tactics from the 1972 election charted a new course for American democracy. Against this backdrop, the stage is set for Washington’s institutional failures and undemocratic characteristics to worsen. 2012 is a crucial election year, but beyond its momentary ideological battles, there lies a deep and problematic disenfranchisement that our generation will have to face, sooner or later.