With election day coming shortly, it is important to remember that even in the best of circumstances, American democracy is extremely flawed. Anti-democratic measures and biases are pervasive in both the United States government and country. Rather than hypothesize a more-perfect democracy for the future, I would like to bring up the ways in which our imperfect democracy is made worse through anti-democratic sentiments.
First, before we even get to the polls, our thoughts and opinions can be easily influenced by charismatic politicians and media figures. Looking at the direct conflicts of interest, many news outlets are owned by massive corporations with their own political agendas, or worse, are owned directly by billionaires. The Washington Post, for example, is owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world as of right now. Do we really expect The Washington Post to cover tax policy fairly when its owner has a large stake in the game? Furthermore, Bloomberg News is owned by Michael Bloomberg, who just a few months ago ran for president. If the conflict of interest of The Washington Post is the equivalent of petty theft, then that of Bloomberg News is like grand larceny. Furthermore, media companies are beholden to the profit motive. This means that, in order to attract advertisers, these companies have an interest in pushing agendas of those who would be willing to advertise on their channels. It would be foolish for us to trust media outlets funded by oil companies, defense contractors and pharmaceutical giants to tell us the truth about climate change, U.S. imperialistic wars or what health care system is best. Implicit conflicts of interest are still conflicts.
Let’s say that we have not been misled and are off to the polls to vote. There are countless ways our vote can be suppressed at our polling places. Governments can reduce the number of polling places, disproportionately affecting poor and minority communities. For example, in Texas, Gov. Gregg Abbott reduced the number of places where mail-in ballots can be dropped off to one per county, meaning Loving County, with 169 residents, has as many of these drop-off locations as Harris County, with over 4.7 million residents. In addition, voter ID laws have become the go-to for Republican-led states since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. To be clear, voter ID laws are a modern day poll tax, which reduces turnout and disproportionately affects minorities who have IDs at lower rates than whites, all to stop the nonexistent problem that is illegal voting. If you are a minimum wage worker choosing between applying for an ID, which often can cost in total between $75 to $175, or paying your electric bill, you are very likely to forego voting to pay the bill. Further, that’s not just time wasted, but lost income for many low-wage workers. Voter ID laws don’t prevent rampant illegal voting by non-citizens, what they do is make voting more difficult for everyone else, especially those most marginalized communities. This doesn’t even include the outward denial of basic human rights of felons who are banned permanently from voting in many states today. How can we dare tell ourselves we believe in “democratic values” when we block millions from voting due to their criminal history?
But let’s say you have successfully jumped through all the hoops and voted. Your vote could still be victim of gerrymandering that silences millions across the country. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing districts to benefit one party over another, either by cracking pockets of one party among neighboring districts in an effort to split their votes or by packing voters into one district, allowing the other party to steal neighboring districts. We allow state legislatures, made up of politicians, to draw their own districts. Predictably, politicians aren’t generally fond of drawing fair districts and would rather draw them to benefit their own parties. We don’t let kids decide how much candy they get as a reward for a reason. We also shouldn’t be letting politicians choose their voters and instead, we should let voters choose their politicians. Independent commissions have been established in numerous states to handle the redistricting process to attempt to eliminate as much political influence as possible, but these commissions are not nearly universal and are still subject to political influence.
Political autonomy is incredibly difficult in the United States. We can be influenced before voting, prevented from voting and even if we successfully vote it could be essentially silenced for political expediency. It’s no wonder why the United States has one of the lowest turnout rates of all developed nations. If we actually want the government to start working for us, it starts by breaking down all the artificial barriers, direct or indirect, that stop us from exercising our full political autonomy.
Seth Gully is a junior triple-majoring in philosophy, politics and law, economics and French.