American democracy is in trouble. In new study by non-profit More in Common, the United states scored worst among a number of developed nations for decline in trust in national government, increased division and predictions of political instability.
Donald Trump, of course, has leaned into this rising time of democratic dissatisfaction, priming supporters with warnings that the presidential vote will be stolen. It’s not just Republicans who believe the election on 3 November could be rigged. Polls suggest Democrats in potential swing states such as Georgia could refuse to accept the result if Joe Biden loses.
America’s democratic crisis has many causes. Decades of voter suppression and gerrymandering – the manipulation of district boundaries – have left millions disenfranchised. Real term wages have stagnated for 40 years, while the wealth of the richest has skyrocketed.
President Donald Trump has leaned into this rising time of democratic dissatisfaction (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty)
A deeply partisan media has been become even more polarised as disinformation – a fancy word for ‘lies’ – spreads like digital wildfire on social media. More US voters get their news from self-styled experts on Facebook and Twitter than from traditional media outlets such as CNN and the New York Times.
But Americans’ growing discontent with democracy is not just an unfortunate by-product of inequality and digital disruption. America’s extreme politics has been actively stoked by vast amounts of private political funding and the refusal of Silicon Valley tech giants to accept their role in undermining US democracy.
The 2020 presidential campaign is set to see unprecedented amounts of political spending, with adverts alone expected to top $5bn, up 32 per cent on 2016. (For comparison, The Conservatives broke British campaign funding records by raising more than £37 million ahead of the December general election.)
Much of the money that flows into American politics is anonymous, thanks to a 2010 US Supreme Court judgement that ruled that corporations and rich foundations should be treated as individuals whose free speech needed protection. Since that decision billions in ‘dark money’ has flowed, mostly from conservative plutocrats.
In America, a small group of donors have an over-sized political influence. “A federal election in the US is supposed to be decided by 150 million voters, and yet the policy preferences are being determined by literally 20 people, 20 major donors,” says Adav Noti, a US election lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, in Washington DC.
So far in 2020, Joe Biden has been the main beneficiary of political funding. Last month, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee raised $210m; the Democratic challenger took in a record-breaking $365m.
So far in 2020, Joe Biden has been the main beneficiary of political funding (Photo: Jim Watson/Getty)
But what the two candidates are spending their money on is revealing. While Biden has ploughed funds into traditional campaigning – buying TV ads in swing states – Trump is heavily outspending his rival on social media, where the Republican gained so much traction in 2016.
What’s even more concerning is the unofficial campaigning. A right-wing youth group, Turning Point, was recently reported to have paid teenagers in Arizona, some of them minors, to flood social media with pro-Trump messages, including disinformation about the coronavirus and mail-in voting. The UK version has branches in many British universities.
Facebook is a godsend for those who want to debase democracy. As a memo written by a former Facebook data scientist revealed earlier this month, the corporation has allegedly ignored evidence of fake accounts undermining elections around the world. Unlike the last presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg can’t even plead ignorance about the scale of political disinformation pushed through his platform. Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley rivals are the modern-day equivalent of the Gilded Age’s steel magnates, railroad tycoons and oil monopolists. Back then, their power was eventually checked only by growing public agitation for regulation to curb their excesses. The question now is whether the unbridled power of today’s digital ‘robber barons’ can be similarly tamed.
Until dark money is taken out of US politics, mistrust in democracy will only grow.
Facebook and others, unsurprisingly, have insisted that concerns about the effect of tech monopolies on democracy are overstated. Zuckerberg has introduced changes aimed at limiting the spread of disinformation. But promises have been made before and have failed to deliver.
The existential threat to democracy demands bold responses. Robert Reich, an economist who served under three presidents and was Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, has argued for splitting up Facebook, Google, Amazon. Yet while dismantling the modern-day equivalent of the railroad monopolies might be necessary to introduce much needed online competition, it’s unlikely to be sufficient to close America’s democratic deficit.
Until dark money is taken out of US politics, mistrust in democracy will only grow. There are some solutions: political donations could be capped; lobbyists could be banned from funding candidates; anonymous corporation donations could be stopped.
But all that would require something that has been conspicuous by its absence: American political leaders willing to act to defend democracy. Is it already too late? We will soon find out.
Peter Geoghegan is a journalist at Open Democracy. His latest book, Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics, is out now published by Head of Zeus.