(III) Money-dominated American democracy
The followers of American democracy usually regard free election campaigns as the pride and joy of American democracy. They hold that an election campaign helps the people independently choose their own political representatives and ensures the people’s equal right to hold public office. Candidates who want to win the election must demonstrate their competence and express their views to the people as comprehensively as possible so that voters learn about the candidates’ competence and governance pledges.
However, free election rings hollow under the money-dominated American democracy. In the U.S. general election, financial support is indispensable for both pre-election preparations and the follow-up period. Candidates have to bear the costs for media promotion, staff salary, and campaign organization. These costs increase as the campaign time is extended. For example, the U.S. general election cost nearly US$4 billion in 2004, about US$5 billion in 2008, about US$6 billion in 2012, about US$7 billion in 2016, and up to US$14 billion in 2020. The above data illustrate that contemporary American democracy is intimately linked to capital, and the free election campaign hinges on capital support. This profoundly shapes the logic behind the running of American politics.
The removal of the cap on political contributions has sped up the integration of American politics with money. Initially, the U.S. adopted a strict attitude towards governing the source and use of political contributions. Some politicians were aware that the involvement of interest groups in elections might undermine democracy, and therefore the political contributions made by private entities must be strictly controlled. Back in 1907, the U.S. adopted the Tillman Act of 1907 to restrict legal persons from making direct political contributions to candidates for federal elections. Following the Watergate scandal, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 included several stipulations. First, individual donations to each candidate shall not exceed US$1,000, and the total annual contribution to candidates, political parties and political action committees shall not exceed US$25,000. Second, groups such as companies can set up political action committees to raise campaign funds. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) stipulates that the upper limit of individual donations to each candidate in the primary and general elections is US$2,000, and the upper limit of donations to the national committee of each political party is US$25,000. In recent years, however, the U.S. has relaxed restrictions on political contributions on the grounds that limiting political contributions is tantamount to restricting freedom of speech. For example, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that companies and trade unions were allowed to make donations to political action committees without restrictions. In 2014, the Supreme Court abolished the restriction over the highest donations made by individuals to federal candidates and political parties that they support in election campaigns. The continuous relaxation of the restrictions over political contributions facilitates the connection of capital and politics, and interest groups can intervene in the democratic election process lawfully.
The money-dominated American democracy damages the interests of voters. As a Chinese saying goes, “If you accept bribes, you have to relieve the giver of misfortune.” In order to safeguard the “political tacit agreement” established with interest groups, the elected candidates often give back to the interest groups, explicitly or implicitly. This is mirrored in the following aspects: First, reward according to merits. The elected can reward representatives of interest groups through personnel appointments, etc. For example, after taking office, Obama designated those who raised funds for his election as ambassadors as a reward. Second, benefit transfer. The elected will implement policies in favor of the interest groups after taking office. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution stipulate the right of citizens to possess and carry firearms. The U.S. has also become the country with the largest gun ownership in the world due to its loose policy governing gun control. Successive presidents of the U.S. have done nothing in response to shooting incidents that have occurred from time to time except expressing “deep sorrow.” As the National Rifle Association of America provided US$30 million in support to Trump in his running for the president, the reason for the abortive introduction of the gun control bill is self-evident. It can be seen that the legalization of political contributions paves the way for capitalists to “blatantly” intervene in policy formulation. Capitalists often attach extra political conditions to contributions. While the elected are elected by the people, their behavior logic is, in fact, deeply driven by interest groups. In the event of a conflict between interest groups and the voters, the elected with dual identities may be caught in a dilemma and will invariably betray the interests of the voters.
Money kidnaps politics, and capital distorts public opinion. American democratic elections degenerate into an arena where capitalists compete for power, and American democratic politics gradually becomes politics in which “money talks.”
(IV) Formalized nature of American Democracy
The fulfillment of democracy requires complicated systems. Once the system causes the substance of democracy to fail, it is inevitable that democracy becomes formalized. Regardless of its merits, the system of American democracy has defects that make democracy formalized.
On the one hand, the Electoral College system has made the practice of democratic elections in the U.S. formalized in the long term. The Electoral College system is implemented for the U.S. presidential election. This system was the product of compromise between the large states and small states when the U.S. Constitution was enacted. Whether a candidate wins the support of the majority of voters in a state will directly affect whether such candidate can win the votes of the electors represented by that state in Congress. Essentially, the Electoral College system can be summarized as “winner takes all.”
Due to the Electoral College system, there are many cases in the U.S. in which the candidates lost a majority vote in universal suffrage but eventually won the election in the presidential elections. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the votes of less than half of the voters, but he was finally elected president thanks to his dominant voting at the Electoral College. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson was finally elected president of the U.S. despite the fact that he lagged behind his opponent by about 1 million votes. In 2000, although Albert Gore received 530,000 more votes than George W. Bush, Bush won the presidential election thanks to the voting results in the key swing states. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes than Trump, but still failed the presidential election. The voting results in key swing states determine whether candidates can win the electoral votes of these states, and the key swing states directly determine whether a candidate receives more than 270 electoral votes. Therefore, candidates of the two parties usually concentrate most of their energy on the key swing states that affect the final outcome.
The most fundamental requirement for democracy is democracy and equality, but the operation of the Electoral College system actually violates the basic principle of democracy and equality for a long time. On the one hand, the effectiveness of elections varies according to different states. The Electoral College system is designated to maintain the federal system. The Electoral College system works in favor of small states as a whole and constitutes reverse discrimination against some large states. On the other hand, there are differences in the effectiveness of voting by voters in different states, and this also constitutes discrimination against some voters. People eligible to vote should be treated equally, and every vote they cast has the same effect on the election result. Although the U.S. has universal suffrage, does the effectiveness of votes really comply with the democratic principles of “one person, one vote” and “the minority subordinate to the majority” under the Electoral College system? The electoral votes in different states symbolize the will of voters of varying numbers, and it is difficult to realistically reflect the collective will of the people nationwide by relying on electoral votes alone. Under this circumstance, does the election winner really enjoy popular support? The answer is obviously no.
On the other hand, American politics controlled by a small number of elites in the long term also exposes the formalized nature of American democracy. Advocates of American democracy are often proud of universal suffrage implemented in the U.S. They believe that standardized election procedures ensure that election results conform to the requirements of formal justice and that everyone has an equal opportunity to an election. Although the universal suffrage system presupposes the possibility of the people independently choosing representatives and running for public office, ordinary people cannot afford the exorbitant costs of a long campaign due to limited funding. Involvement in democratic elections requires a great deal of funds, an invisible hurdle for ordinary people. Except for making regular votes, it is difficult for the majority of ordinary people to get involved in American democracy. Only a few political elites supported by the consortia can be nominated by their party. As a result, American politics has long been dominated by a few political families, such as the Roosevelt family and the Bush family. American democracy is nothing more than a power game for a few political elites. As time passes, ordinary people have dwindling enthusiasm for elections because they know that their votes can hardly change the dominance of American politics by the elites.
In today’s world, democracy has become a common human value. However, value commensurability does not mean that value can be realized by a single method. The models of democracy in various countries, including American democracy, are essential for brilliant political achievements. For the progress of democracy in any country, it is necessary to draw on the benefits of foreign civilizations and all the more to combine general principles with national realities. Therefore, no country should point fingers at other countries’ democracy, nor has the right to export democracy. However, the U.S. has an illusionary sense of confidence in its democratic system, thinking that American democracy is a one-size-fits-all system truth. The U.S. gives sanctimonious preaching on democracy all over the world and forcibly promotes its democratic model. Such an attempt will, of course, be boycotted by other countries because if we assert that there is only one democratic model in the world, it is in itself anti-democratic.
Past experience fully illustrates that the U.S. export of democracy to some regions caused new humanitarian disasters instead of bringing prosperity and development to the local areas. For this, the U.S. remains impenitent and even brings the domestic two-party internal power struggle to the international community by gathering some vassal states and regions in the so-called summit for democracy. The U.S. organizes the summit for democracy in an attempt to monopolize the right to define democracy and act as a judge, form a clique in the name of democracy, and establish a world system based on the standard of American interests and ideology. In fact, the so-called summit for democracy is doomed to failure because the limitations and practical ills of American democracy have been exposed, and it gradually loses its persuasiveness and appeal. More and more countries and people become aware that American democracy does not represent the development direction of democracy. The people of all countries should and can independently pursue democratic development with their own traits and contribute their wisdom and power to the diversity of political achievements.