As the country takes stock of its political leadership in the build-up to 2016, it’s become undeniable that our electoral system is seriously broken and that fixing it will require fundamental change. The false promises of the Obama administration have left many people disaffected with mainstream party politics. With Republicans trying to privatize Social Security and woo billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, and Democrats behind the NSA controversy and the Wall Street bailout, how can poor and middle-class people realize their interests through the electoral process?
The answer is simple: They can’t.
Ever since the Supreme Court removed corporate spending limits on political campaigns via Citizen United, the field of American politics has become overwhelmingly dominated by the messaging of corporate donors and wealthy individuals. And two months ago, the situation got much worse. McCutcheon v. FEC removed limits on the total amount any one person can contribute. Now individuals can give more than $3.5 million over two years, instead of the previous $123,200 limit.
Who can afford to spend that kind of money on politics other than the very rich? And what, exactly, are they getting in return for their million-dollar donations? A lot more than a campaign t-shirt.
They’re buying policies and decisions that favor their class interests — not just tax breaks, but intricate de-regulatory and privatization schemes aimed at transforming core institutions like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, public schools, and hospitals. They’re buying votes against immigration reform measures, and cutting basic services like food stamps and public housing that have traditionally buoyed people through economic downturns.
Americans have known for some time now that their political and economic institutions are not really structured as representative bodies. And they know that political party leaders have more in common with each other than they do with the people who make up their base. But most people feel powerless to do anything about it.
Political elites share a common class-consciousness based on mutual prestige and access to power. Everyday people, on the other hand, remain woefully fragmented and, as such, woefully impotent.
Unless, of course, they build movements and coalitions to fight back, which is exactly what some are trying to do. Rumblings of electoral insurrection are heard these days from both the right and left, rooted in some of the same sources of anger and frustration that spurred the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements a few years ago.
Take, for instance, the ousting of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor during the Virginia primary by the obscure college professor David Brat. Brat ran a low-budget ($200,000) campaign framing Cantor as out of touch with his base, and in cahoots with rich businessmen like Mark Zuckerberg to outsource American jobs. By pulling the class card at the right time, Brat rocked the Washington establishment, unseating a seven-term incumbent who was next in line for speaker of the House.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Sen. Bernie Sanders, known for his grassroots style, won his last re-election by a landslide with funds derived from small donations (averaging around $48) all while eschewing the help of corporate PACs. He too has been railing against big money in politics for many years, as well as focusing on protecting American jobs and rebuilding the middle class.
Politically, that’s where the similarities end. Where Brat’s extremism on these topics is likely to further bend Congress toward self-sabotage and government shutdown, Sanders has bridged the partisan divide at key moments — like when he and John McCain recently struck a deal to revamp the crisis-ridden Veterans Affairs healthcare system. As a career Independent, Sanders has waged several successful campaigns against candidates from both parties, and won votes from progressives and conservatives in his traditionally Republican state of Vermont.
Still, what both examples make clear is that social class is going to be the major axis on which the new American politics will emerge. The question is just whether such change will arouse a progressive turn or degenerate into the paranoid hooliganism of some on the radical right.
Sanders’ talk about a 2016 run, for example, is less about being president than about provoking a “political revolution” to re-enfranchise poor and middle-class people. This kind of progressive movement-building is not to be confused with Brat’s brand of populism, which pits people against each other, and plays on the reactionary passions and insecurities of a recession-battered people.
It should also not be confused with Hillary Clinton’s appeal to identity politics, which will likely rally female voters, but do little to unite typically divided groups in a fight for more universal forms of freedom and economic fairness.
Shifting the national dialogue to one that’s less about right versus left, and more about the political elite versus the politically disenfranchised, is particularly important in the lead-up to 2016. Voter apathy and downright disgust have reached a new high, and elections provide a brief opening for political conversation that’s not part of everyday life for most Americans.
A political revolution may seem overly ambitious given how corrupt and partisan our political system has become, but it’s no more ambitious than convincing poor and middle-class people that Sheldon Adelson and Goldman Sachs share their interests — or that Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie do, either. What we need is a truly democratic form of political leadership. Not leadership by elites, but a system that's led for and by everyday people.
Heather Gautney is an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University.