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Unchecked Corporate Power Is at the Root of America's Democracy Crisis – Jacobin magazine

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America’s real democracy crisis is this: corporations use a system of legalized bribery to buy public policy, which prevents popular progressive policies from passing and erodes Americans’ faith in their government.
A protester holding up representations of Senator Joe Manchin, House Speaker Chuck Schumer, and President Joe Biden at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today at a discount to get it.
In 2014, Northwestern and Princeton researchers published a report statistically documenting how lawmakers do not listen or care about what most voters want, and instead mostly care about serving their big donors. Coupled with additional research documenting the discrepancy between donor and voter preferences, they bluntly concluded that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy.”
Seven years later, America is witnessing a very public and explicit illustration of this situation in real time — and Tuesday’s off-year election results are the latest confirmation that the country seems pretty ticked off about the situation ahead of the 2022 midterms.
In America’s nationalized politics, those off-year elections were dominated by headlines from Washington, where President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers have spent months agreeing to whittle down their social spending reconciliation bill at the demand of corporate donors and their congressional puppets.
The cuts almost perfectly spotlight the democracy crisis. Indeed, the specific initiatives being slashed or watered down in the Biden agenda bill share two traits: 1) They would require the wealthy and powerful to sacrifice a bit of their wealth and power, and 2) They are quite literally the most popular proposals among rank-and-file voters.
New polling demonstrates the silencing effect that systemic corruption is having on voter preferences:
Many of these findings were summarized in a memo last month from the Biden-aligned nonprofit Priorities USA, which warned that “there could be consequences” if Democrats fail to deliver on their promised agenda. The organization wrote that its polling found the most popular issue among swing voters was “the Democratic proposal to make the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share in taxes.” The second most popular item was adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits to Medicare and allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.
The flip side of all this also appears to be true — Democrats have protected initiatives to enrich powerful corporations, even though some of those measures aren’t very popular. One example: subsidies for health insurance plans purchased on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace that shower money on for-profit insurers. Morning Consult reports that extending new ACA premium tax credits passed by Democrats in March “is the lowest-ranking of all the health measures included in the poll.”
A slim majority of voters notably told Morning Consult that Democrats’ negotiations over the individual components of their social spending plan have been unproductive — suggesting people aren’t entirely as dumb as Congress thinks.
The results of this latest middle finger to voter preferences? New polling data shows that almost three quarters of Americans now think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Taken together, this is the democracy crisis thrumming underneath all the media noise — the day-to-day erosion of democracy by corporations that use a system of legalized bribery to buy public policy, which then erodes Americans’ faith in their government and leads to all the down-ballot that unfolded on Tuesday night.
And yet this erosion does not get discussed in a media-directed democracy discourse that focuses almost exclusively on the January 6 insurrection or Republican efforts to deny election results and limit voting.
That dichotomy is an expression of corporate power. Corruption is omitted from most corporate media coverage because their corporate sponsors are the ones doing the vote-buying. By contrast, the insurrection and GOP assault on voting are safe topics for corporate media, because they do not threaten the power of the media’s corporate sponsors.
This is what my 2006 book called the “Hostile Takeover”: the conquest of democratic institutions by moneyed interests, to the point where “the world’s greatest democracy” routinely rejects the commonsense policies that the vast majority of voters want and that every other high-income country has already adopted.
The hostile takeover is not merely the rejection of the most popular policies — it is also the media discourse itself. The Washington press is constantly portraying industry-bankrolled opponents of majoritarian policies as “moderates” or “centrists” and depicting supporters of those policies as fringe lunatics who refuse to be reasonable and compromise.
Meanwhile, there is a pervasive omertà that silences most media discussion of the corporate influence and corruption that so obviously defines American politics — and there is scant mention that the “moderate” obstructionists are bankrolled by the industries lobbying to kill the popular policies that Americans want.
In short: the takeover is so complete, we can’t even talk about it or debate it in the public square — and when someone dares to sneak in a mention of it, it is akin to a fleeting glitch in the matrix or seeing a real-life unicorn.
The Daily Poster and other independent media outlets are trying to change this — we work everyday to report out the campaign-cash context of public policy decisions. And it is not a coincidence that we have seen a surge of subscribers as we’ve followed the money around the agenda bill negotiations and as corporate media has written money’s influence out of story.
This is encouraging proof that more and more Americans innately understand the kleptocratic nature of their government, and want explicit accountability journalism to uncover it. Also mildly encouraging is the impact of that reporting in the reconciliation bill battle: Democrats tried to get rid of all the drug pricing provisions, but were successfully shamed into adding at least a few of the (pathetically weak) provisions back in after independent media aggressively exposed the pharma ties of key lawmakers, and then grassroots activists pressured them to relent.
It’s not a huge victory and not worthy of some effusive celebration of Democrats because the provisions are watered down and a betrayal of the party’s promise to do something a lot better. But it’s a minimal proof-of-concept win.
It may at least get the idea of Medicare negotiating drug prices into law for the first time. And as important, it shows that when there is a robust press willing to challenge power, the government can be forced — kicking and screaming — to respond, or at least pretend to respond (and in this case Democrats touting the deal better hope it does something — anything! — to actually reduce drug prices, or voters will be rightly ticked off that Democrats are once again selling them a false bill of goods).
That the response in this case was embarrassingly weak is a reflection of how small the independent press is and how outmatched grassroots activists still are. The takeaway, then, is that it’s going to take a whole lot more of that kind of reporting and a whole lot more movement pressure to secure real wins and beat back the hostile takeover.
The silver lining here is that at least that takeover is now explicit. The polls showing what people want compared to what’s being excised from the reconciliation bill make this part of the democracy crisis impossible to deny — and ending that denial is a prerequisite for achieving something better.
You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Daily Poster, here.
David Sirota is editor-at-large at Jacobin. He edits the Daily Poster newsletter and previously served as a senior adviser and speechwriter on Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign.
Andrew Perez is a writer and researcher living in Maine.
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In 2014, Northwestern and Princeton researchers published a report statistically documenting how lawmakers do not listen or care about what most voters want, and instead mostly care about serving their big donors. Coupled with additional research documenting the discrepancy between donor and voter preferences, they bluntly concluded that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only […]
In 2014, Northwestern and Princeton researchers published a report statistically documenting how lawmakers do not listen or care about what most voters want, and instead mostly care about serving their big donors. Coupled with additional research documenting the discrepancy between donor and voter preferences, they bluntly concluded that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only […]
In 2014, Northwestern and Princeton researchers published a report statistically documenting how lawmakers do not listen or care about what most voters want, and instead mostly care about serving their big donors. Coupled with additional research documenting the discrepancy between donor and voter preferences, they bluntly concluded that the “preferences of the average American appear to have only […]
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