Few elections in the Western world offer the spectacle that is an American presidential race. While Brits tend to keep a stiff upper lip when jockeying for position, and Canadians prefer the power of positive thinking in determining just who runs the show, every four years the United States of America offers up the kind of no-holds-barred political brawl fit to make a reality show producer green with envy. Will the Bernie Bros defeat the Hillary Sisterhood? Will Black Lives Matter crush Trump? Or will the Trumpeters pummel the activists? Whatever the outcome, the number of breakdowns, collapses, thrashings, annihilations, massacres, meltdowns, and, of course, Armageddons in any American presidential race is truly impressive. And while many people find the pugnacious process of determining just who will lead their country to be at times both embarrassing and exhausting, nearly all agree that it is a very public competition and that that is what democracy is all about—competing for political power. May the fittest survive, may the best candidate win.
Qualms about this process tend not to question the idea of competition per se. Rather, they reflect criticisms of candidates’ conduct as ungentlemanly, of their performance as unconvincing, and, increasingly, of the influence that campaign donors may exercise over policy. This shouldn’t be surprising. Highly aggressive and increasingly expensive campaigns ($5 billion was spent on the 2008 presidential election, a figure surpassed by the $7 billion spent in 2012) Occupy parlance—exert an influence on politics that extends well beyond their personal vote at the ballot box.
But if the 1 percent are running politics in the United States, how did they gain that position? In a democracy—that is, a country run by the people—why would the majority not simply recalibrate the political system to minimize the advantages that money can buy?
When I first began researching the history of Western democracy 10 years ago, these were the questions that most fascinated me. Democracy, after all, means “people power.” If the people of a nation truly held political power, one would expect them to consistently pass laws in the interests of the majority, and that the political landscape would reflect this. But it was hard to see why the majority of citizens would ever agree, for example, to allow wealth to play such a spectacular role in elections (congressional candidates that outspend their opponents win 78 percent of their races), given that the vast majority of people are, per definition, not rich.
Of course, the new American bourgeoisie, populated by privately schooled trust-fund babies and latte-swigging hipsters, has an answer for this, blaming every objectionable aspect of national politics on the influence of an under-educated Idiot America that persists in voting against its own best interests. In this account, the proletariat simply does not know what is good for it. This doesn’t, however, harmonize very well with the fact that, whatever else you want to say about them, Americans generally aren’t any more ignorant than they were 20 or 30 years ago, a time when the political system was arguably more functional than it is now. Indeed, thanks to cheap air travel and the Internet, Americans may even be more knowledgeable about the world beyond their borders than they were in times gone by.
Another explanation of which the liberal elite is fond goes like this: The system is good, but the players are bad. Ted Cruz is a psychopath, Trump a narcissist, and Hillary Clinton an opportunist. If only better people were in politics, everything would be rosy. Yet this still fails to answer the ultimate question: Why does this system allow so many basketcases to climb to the top? In a country of over 300 million people, there must be at least a few decent individuals out there. This brings us to the timely question of why they are so rarely seen on-screen, and the even timelier one of why, when they do appear, they are so quickly and so brusquely escorted off the set.