Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the essence of a truly democratic nation lay in the quality of its citizens and in the fact that the majority ruled. Citizens, he thought, should be deeply involved in their communities and should know that their involvement was valued and impacted decisions. Equality among citizens should be the rule. There were important areas of American life where his standards obviously did not rule – the existence of slavery and the secondary status of women most specifically. But in general de Tocqueville thought America was indeed a democratic nation.
It’s doubtful if he would have that opinion today.
The next President faces the daunting task of bringing back into the American democracy large numbers of citizens who for various reasons are not actively participating members of our political system. They are de facto aliens in their own nation having little political impact, no economic power, and few prospects for the future.
Who are these invisible Americans?
The largest group is the poor and near poor. America has some 46 million citizens living in poverty. Some 22% of children under the age of 18 are poor. The poor also includes 11 million who work full time. But the numbers of the poor are but part of the story. Various studies indicate that an additional 50 million Americans live just above the poverty line. When days are focused on procuring basic needs and goods, and making enough money to survive, little time is left to fully participate in political processes.
Their lack of economic power plays a decisive and powerful role in their political weakness. Economic inequality directly leads to political inequality – especially in modern races. With House seats averaging $1.7 million in an election, Senate seats costing $10.5 million, and almost $1.5 billion already spent on the 2016 Presidential election, it is clear that money is speaking in elections. While elections may not go to the highest bidder, the ears of the candidate trying to compete in such expensive races usually does go to the highest donors. The economically disadvantaged do not have the same megaphone put to their opinions, needs, or suggestions.
The white workers who support Donald Trump and those who supported Bernie Sanders are also part of America’s disaffected. Those who support Trump, the downwardly mobile as one commentator called them, aim their anger at the wrong targets. Following Trump, they blame immigrants and minorities for their ills. History has shown that the scapegoating of different fringe groups creates a false sense of promise. While his followers may believe that he will strengthen the economy and reinstate ability for upward mobility, Trump’s economic plan actually has little in it that would do that.
Sanders’ followers chose a different target – the right target. The target is the wealthy elite who have let inequality spiral out of control – or worse, who have chosen to increase the rate of spiraling. These are the economically powerful who literally direct American public policy, who give themselves massive financial benefit, and who pay for their largesse to themselves in part by stifling any economic benefits for American workers. And they have been doing this for some 40 years.
Secretary Hillary Clinton, currently polling in the lead to be the next President, champions another group that has long been denied full political equality: our young people – the millennials. They have been brought into the political system via personal experience that included devastating educational debts and a lack of job opportunities. All they want, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, is fairness and opportunity. She praised Sanders for encouraging “young people to channel their interest in public service and community leadership into a political place, because this is where decisions are made that’ll affect their future and their lives.”
Inspired, many millennials are now continuing their political organizing as they prepare to run for local office and launch ballot initiatives for such issues as single payer health insurance.
We trust and expect they will be a positive force in the years ahead. America needs a revolution in our political priorities. We are in too deep a national crisis for anything less than fundamental political change. Almost half of the country agrees that we do not just need some reform, we need total political reform. I can think of no more important task for the next President than to immediately deal with the necessary changes to truly restore the democratic process for all American citizens.
Patriotic Millionaire Fred Rotondaro has had a varied career that includes journalism, teaching, anti-poverty and civil rights work, and national association management. He was a senior fellow from 2003 to 2015 at the Center for American Progress where he concentrated on poverty and inequality. He has written extensively for academic and popular publications. He holds a PhD in American Studies from New York University, an honorary doctorate from Wheeling College, and is currently Chair of the Board of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.