The US presidential elections: corporate power vs democracy
by Ian Sinclair
21 April 2016
With the 24-hour, wall-to-wall soap opera-style coverage, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae of the US presidential primaries. Seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, Senator Bernie Sanders recently noted “We need to break through the fog of the corporate media, which does everything that they can to keep us entertained without addressing the real issues… they talk about everything under the sun, but not the real issues.”
So what are the real issues when it comes to the US presidential elections?
Discussing the influence of money last year, former US President Jimmy Carter provided much needed clarity: “It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president.”
Comparing polling data with policy outcomes, recent research by conducted by two academics from Princeton University and Northwestern University provides hard evidence to support Carter’s assertion that the US is controlled by a monied elite. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”, note Professor Martin Gilens and Professor Benjamin Page. “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association” they conclude. However “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Professor Thomas Ferguson fleshed out the nefarious relationship between money and US electoral politics in his 1995 book Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. Many view US politics through the wrong lens, Ferguson argued in 2010, “treating public policy as the result of the will of voters. But, in fact, American political parties are mostly bank accounts.” Ferguson maintains the historical record shows “parties are more accurately analysed as blocs of major investors who coalesce to advance candidates representing their interests.” Importantly, his theory posits that “on all issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no party competition will take place.” To take just one example, neither of the two main parties reflects the interests of the majority of Americans who have long supported an American national health service, according to repeated polling.
For Edward Herman and David Peterson the US political system is “an unelected dictatorship of money” whereby big business “vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to US citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial US regime.” Hillary Clinton’s conservative, business-friendly presidential candidacy is the perfect illustration of this. The former Secretary of State and her husband Bill Clinton have received $35 million from the financial services, insurance companies and real estate sectors since 2001, including $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for giving three speeches, aswell as the backing of the vast majority of the liberal media.
In contrast, CNN noted in January 2016 that left-leaning social democrat Sanders “has received vastly less media attention than” Clinton, “while his chances of becoming the party’s nominee were largely dismissed by pundits and commentators.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “None of them, except the Morning Star, supported us”, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell explained earlier this year about the British media’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to become Labour leader. “Even the liberal left Guardian opposed us and undermined us at every opportunity.”
Like Corbyn’s inspirational grassroots campaign in the UK, Sander’s surging progressive campaign suggests the corporate-controlled political status quo is not invincible, that the popular will of the people can force its way on to the agenda in the right circumstances.
And like Corbyn and the British establishment – remember that a senior serving general threatened a coup should the MP for Islington North become prime minister – Sanders’s growing popularity has, according to commentator Brent Budowsky, put “virtually the entire Washington and Wall Street establishments… in a state of panic.”
Though a victory for Sanders in the race to become the Democratic presidential nominee would be an astonishing moment in US politics, unfortunately it looks like Clinton’s lead is insurmountable. But all is not lost for those who wish to see a more equal and peaceful world. As US historian Howard Zinn once noted “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’ – and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”
Therefore, with the climate crisis already upon us, Obama having bombed seven nations and talk of another financial crisis over the horizon, win or lose it is imperative that the mobilisation and energy of Sanders’s campaign is expanded and deepened into a sustained mass movement that can successfully challenge corporate power and the dark shadow it casts over US politics.