Elections in the United States are far and away the most expensive in the entire world. In 2012, the Federal Election Commission reported that $7 billion was spent on the presidential campaign. By the time the ink is dry on the 2016 election, the number will likely be even higher. American voters take for granted that political campaigns provide value that allows them to choose the candidate that best represents their ideology and policy positions. But, is this really the best system? Is it even a good one?
The astronomical cost of campaigns in the U.S. prohibits all but a small handful of individuals with the celebrity and access to obscene sums money the realistic opportunity to compete. It should be no surprise that the two finalists for president in 2016 are both multi-millionaire oligarchs. Even so, they are dependent on raising hundreds of millions of dollars from big business and other special interests.
Is it reasonable to expect that after such a process the winner of the election will be able to represent the interests of the average citizen rather than the super-wealthy elite individuals and corporations whose patronage allowed them achieve victory at the polls?
A recent Princeton University academic study disputes this notion. Martin Giles and Benjamin Page write that statistical measures demonstrate that elites and business interests have an impact on policy directly correlated to their wealth, while the average voter has no discernible impact on policy at all. The influence of regular citizens is so low, the authors argue, that it would be inaccurate to characterize the American political system as a democracy.
As greater economic power necessarily translates to greater political power, a reasonable remedy to the situation would be to decrease inequality in the United States. If inequality was drastically rolled back to a level closer to that found after the end of WWII – through massive taxes on wealth, income and capital gains, along with the abolition of inheritance – perhaps the conditions would exist for fair elections based on competitive campaigns.
But absent such a drastic realignment of the politico-economic system, are there better possibilities for American citizens to elect officials that represent their interests? The nation has seen that Barack Obama’s promises in 2008 to represent “hope and change,” to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, close Guantanamo, operate transparently, limit domestic surveillance and reform taxes were, in reality, little more than hot air.
What if instead of being allowed to create his own narrative, a summary of his undistinguished record as an lawyer from elite universities and corporate-friendly record state representative and politician was what voters had to guide their expectations of how he would govern?
Perhaps the U.S. could look to Cuba, where the Revolutionary government – facing unrelenting subversion and destabilization for decades by its imperial neighbor to the north – has managed to eliminate money from politics entirely. At the municipal level, candidates spend no money and do not campaign at all. Instead, voters are presented with short biographies to reference in determining who they believe would better represent them.
As the U.S. prepares for its latest electoral spectacle in a few weeks, I offer sample bios for the two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, based on what they may look like if they were running for office in Cuba.
Education level: Advanced degree
Organizations belonged to: Democratic Party
Born on October 26, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois of capitalist social origin.
Graduated from Maine South High School in Illinois in 1965. Attended Wellesley College from 1966-1969 and received a bachelor’s degree with a major in political science. In college, she was head of the Young Republicans Club from 1966-1967. In 1968, she was elected president of the Wellesley College Government Association. During a summer program in Washington, DC, she interned for Republican House Leader Gerald Ford.
After finishing her undergraduate studies, she enrolled at Yale Law School, where she was on the editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action. In 1972, she volunteered in Austin, Texas for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. She was awarded a Juris Doctor degree from Yale in 1973.
She helped found Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in 1977. That same year, she joined the Rose Law Firm and specialized in patent infringement and intellectual property. She would become the first female partner at Rose Law.
While her husband William Jefferson Clinton served as governor of Arkansas, she held three corporate board seats. For six years, she was a member of the board of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company. As the board aggressively fought unions, she “remained silent.” She was on the board of the yogurt manufacturing firm TCBY Enterprises, as well as LaFarge, a subsidiary of a French concrete company for two years from 1990-1992. Additionally, she served on the boards of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Legal Services, and Children’s Defense Fund.
As first Lady in 1992, her husband appointed her to head his President’s Task Force on Health Care Reform, an effort that did not result in any legislative accomplishments. Later in his presidency, she would convince her husband to bomb the sovereign nation of Yugoslavia, which set a precedent for later illegal U.S. wars.
Voters in New York elected her to serve as the state’s junior senator in November 2000, a position she held for eight years. While in office, she voted in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force in 2001; two illegal wars (Afghanistan, 2001 and Iraq, 2003); and the original USA Patriot Act as well as its reauthorization in 2005. She did not pass any major piece of progressive legislation as senator.
After losing the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, she was subsequently appointed as Secretary of State. During her four year tenure at State, she pressed President Obama to carry out an illegal regime change in Libya, as well as helping solidify governments in both Honduras and Ukraine that came to power through extra-legal coups.
After resigning from government, she joined the board of the Clinton Foundation, an enterprise organized as a charitable organization that has been accused of being “a vehicle to launder money and to enrich Clinton family friends.”
During the same period, she gave 92 speeches to corporations that paid her a total of $21.6 million.
Education level: Bachelor’s degree
Organizations belonged to: Republican Party
He was born on June 14, 1946 in Queens, New York of aristocratic social origin.
He attended an elite private school, before behavior problems led him to transfer to the New York Military Academy.
After finishing primary school, he attended Fordham University for two years before transferring to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received a bachelor of arts degree in economics in 1968.
His father was an extremely wealthy real estate developer and one of the richest men in the country, and provided him an executive position in the family business when he finished university. When he started his real estate career with the construction of the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York City in 1978, his father provided a $1 million loan and acted as a “silent partner.”
Estimates of the fortune he inherited from his father are as high as $200 million.
In 1973, he was sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination. The New York City Human Rights Division gathered evidence that his apartment buildings would not rent to African Americans and a superintendent claimed to be only acting on orders from management. The lawsuit was settled two years later.
He used debt leverage to build multiple hotels and casinos in Atlantic City and other locations. Many of the properties bore his name.
From 1991 to 2009, his companies filed four Chapter 11 bankruptcies.
He was accused by hundreds of contractors, including plumbers, painters and carpet companies, of failing to pay for work done to build his casinos.
When journalists have published stories about him that he dislikes, he has threatened to sue them.
Starting in 2004, he became the host of a reality television show called The Apprentice. Later, this was spun off into another reality show, Celebrity Apprentice. Trump spent 13 seasons with the shows.
He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in both 2004 and 2005 (Outstanding Reality-Competition Program).
Unlike every candidate for the past 40 years, he has refused to release his tax returns. Some have
Presently, political campaigns are little more than billion-dollar public relations exercises that allow elite servants of the corporate class to deceive the public into mistakenly believing they will represent their best interests. As the above bios demonstrate, if the ability to control and shape their message is removed from the candidates, the voters are presented with a much different picture. Perhaps American voters will start demanding more than simply enacting a new version of campaign finance reform to fix their broken system. Political campaigns, as they currently exist, arguably do more to obscure and distort the history and record of candidates than they do to provide transparency and allow a rational choice based on relevant information about how they will govern.