It’s impressive that Donald Trump could bring out 10,000 people in Fayetteville on Wednesday night. And it’s remarkable that the once-marginal Bernie Sanders drew an overflow crowd of several thousand at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium on Friday afternoon.
These insurgent races in both parties would seem to affirm the resiliency and power of the American electoral system. Here are Americans vigorously engaged in democracy. They have rejected establishment candidates in order to back those who better express their hopes and respond to their concerns. And, defying all early predictions, one or both may win their party’s nomination.
But what’s happening in these outsider campaigns is really a sign of how democracy is not working. These campaigns aren’t about millions of Americans being heard. They are about millions of Americans who feel the nation’s powers have stopped listening.
What appears to be democracy triumphant is a symptom of democracy thwarted. Even if Trump or Sanders should win the presidency, their followers will go largely unheard. Ask those who celebrated the election of Barack Obama in 2008 only to see him stymied by years of congressional obstruction.
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What is troubling about this election is not that Trump is some sort of combed-over Mussolini or that Sanders is a milder Marx. It is that the democratic system is broken and the will of the people no longer rules.
What rules are major corporations, their money and their lobbyists. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks the effect of money on public policy, reports that half the members of Congress who lost office in the last election have become lobbyists. North Carolina’s last Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is going down the same path. She has taken a job at Capitol Hill’s biggest and most-profitable lobbying and law firm.
And corporate rule is being tightened by economic inequality, by government austerity that widens that divide and by distortions of the electoral process that insulate elected representatives from accountability and lead to extremism and gridlock.
Sanders has done a commendable job of running a campaign based on small donations, and Trump has won support by financing much of his campaign himself. But the Supreme Court’s allowance of unlimited corporate political giving and its lifting of the cap on total giving by an individual still have had a skewing effect.
Financial support from super PACs and the super wealthy kept several GOP presidential candidates in the field longer than they could have endured in an environment of limited giving. The result was a fractured vote that allowed Trump to emerge as a frontrunner.
On the Democratic side, money has had the opposite effect, winnowing the field by making Hillary Clinton seem unbeatable early on. Even now, with the weak enthusiasm for her candidacy exposed, her support from major donors will likely help carry her to the nomination.
Those who give vast amounts expect something in return. What they get is lower taxes justified in the name of fiscal restraint. But what austerity at the state and national levels really does is limit government’s ability to spend on education and infrastructure, two areas where more spending would increase worker skills and create more higher-paying jobs.
This boost-the-rich, stymie-the-rest approach is being locked in place by new laws that discourage voting and by the intense gerrymandering of state legislative and congressional districts.
North Carolinians are especially affected by the phenomenon of unresponsive government. In Tuesday’s primary election, congressional races have been removed from the ballot because the districts were illegally gerrymandered. Those districts were drawn by a Republican majority on the General Assembly that has hijacked state government for its own narrow purposes.
A recent SurveyUSA poll of North Carolina voters commissioned by WRAL found 53 percent disapproved of the job the state legislature is doing while only 23 percent approved. (Only 12 percent approved of Congress’ performance, while 77 percent disapproved.)
And yet the state legislature rolls on undeterred, and for good reason. Thanks in part to gerrymandering, nearly a third of the General Assembly’s 170 seats will be uncontested in November.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory have pushed through voting restrictions and other changes that make it harder to vote, especially for college students and low-income people. The New York Times last week reported on North Carolina as the center of the nation’s voting rights disputes.
If democracy were working right, voters would throw out many members of the General Assembly in November. On the national ticket they’d be deciding a contest along the line of Sen. Elizabeth Warren vs. Rep. Paul Ryan. Instead, North Carolinians are hostage to an unpopular legislature, and the nation appears headed toward a choice between a rogue Trump spawned by unfocused frustration and an establishment Clinton who inspires little enthusiasm.
To make politics better reflect the popular will, Citizens United must be overturned, gerrymandering must end and voting must be encouraged, not suppressed.
One of these elections, and soon, the winner must be democracy.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, or firstname.lastname@example.org