What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States today? A lot of people associate it with being able to vote, traveling with a passport, and abiding by the laws of the land. Today, the ability for the average citizen to have their opinions mean something in the political process is nonexistent.
Throughout history, being able to participate in politics has been limited to the noble and elite. An example of this is in the city-state of Florence; citizenship only extended to males over 30, paid taxes, and part of a professional guild. These people made up just over 10% of the population. That was then, but like everything, the concept of citizenship has evolved. One could see that when observing voting rights in the United States; when at the inception of America, the requirement was one must be a white male with property to today where almost any citizen above the age of 18 can vote. Politicians always love to boast about our thriving democracy and how our system works to have all of our voices heard. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Today there is an unwritten rule that everyone knows, money=speech, and the United States has been on this path for the past 40 years. Before Citizens United v. FEC, there was Buckley v. Valeo which set the stage for how campaign finance is structured today. The case concluded that donating money to campaigns was a constitutional way to express your first amendment right. By striking down limits on candidate’s expenditures, the Supreme Court had created a brand new industry devoted to raising money for campaigns. Furthermore, the Court changed the priorities of elected officials from hearing the concerns of everyday citizens to ringing the telephones of wealthy donors pleading for their support. What the Citizens United decision did was expand that protection of free speech to corporations and opened the door for unlimited funding through Super PACs.
The consequence of all this money circulating through the American politics, whether directed towards candidates, interest groups, or think tanks, is that America is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy. This fact has been the conclusion of Princeton and Northwestern researchers and of Former President Jimmy Carter who said
“We’ve become now an oligarchy instead of a democracy. And I think that’s been the worst damage to the basic moral and ethical standards of the American political system that I’ve ever seen in my life”
There is a sense of irony that comes with the age of the Super PAC; it has not panned out as planned for the donor class. Two of their darlings who based their entire campaign fundraising on Super PACs, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, are no longer running for President. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has mostly self-funded his campaign, and Bernie Sanders has had a record-breaking surge of small donations throughout this election season.
Unfortunately, this does not stop the problem because even if Trump or Sanders wins the Presidency, they do not make the laws, Congress does. If you read the study, it focuses on policy decisions, not who is elected, and it concluded that if the majority of the economic elite and interest groups want something, they get it. Average citizens on the other hand, even if 100% of the electorate supported a change, the chances of that happening without the support of moneyed interests is slim.
Just as the 10% of Florence was able to participate in politics because of their status of citizen, it seems today that things have not changed. Granted, Florence had a completely different form of government compared to the United States, but the bottom line that a handful of wealthy donors have their concerns mean something. The fallout of this is that if the wishes of the masses are in conflict with the preferences of the few on multiple landmark issues, then turmoil could erupt.