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Unrepresentative Government

We are in the midst of a presidential campaign year. It’s supposed to be the Super Bowl for political junkies like me. But it feels strange and muted, and, so far, its vibe is uncomfortably similar to 2020.

The 2020 election was strange because of COVID, which became a pretext to change the rules in order to rig the outcome. This time, there is no such excuse for a “basement campaign.” It’s true that Biden is old, feeble, and unpopular. And Trump has been sidelined, quite deliberately, by a malicious New York judge who won’t allow him to travel and conduct his signature rallies. The problem, however, now infects all electoral politics.

There used to be rituals common to all political campaigns, but you don’t see them much anymore. This included multiple events taking place every day, announced in advance, and open to the media and the public.

Pizzerias, diners, churches, factories, local party meetings, parades, town halls, and clubs would frequently feature a visit and short speech by one candidate or another. You see aspects of this in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries and sometimes in local races, but lately it is rare to see them in presidential and congressional campaigns.

Kabuki Theater Political Campaigning

Biden’s recent visit to Tampa got me thinking about this. There were news stories announcing his visit in advance, but it was impossible to find out where it was. The media did not even acknowledge its own silence, taking it for granted that members of the public should not get to hear the president speak.

When Biden arrived at the local community college campus—a location announced at the last possible movement—he met with hand-picked local party functionaries, and he gave a rather extreme speech that praised abortion as if it were the Eighth Sacrament.

Wherever he goes, Biden almost never mixes with regular people. He’s quite unlike Trump or Bill Clinton for that matter, who both enjoyed mixing it up with regular folks. There’s no doubt that if he did things the old way, many of these regular folks would heckle or at least not show a lot of respect for President Biden. But prior presidential candidates had to deal with this risk, and many turned these scenes into assets through charm and thick skin.

The media praised Biden’s common touch and empathy, but his campaign managers seem positively terrified of him interacting with the public or the press in anything but the most choreographed fashion.

Public Ignored On Policy

The disregard for the public also extends to policy. There’s always been a gap between politicians’ priorities and those of the public, what voters are promised and what they ultimately get, but the government has never been quite this out-of-touch and indifferent to public opinion.

People on both sides of the political divide have been complaining about rampant inflation and the porous southern border for months. Instead of dealing with these things, our new GOP speaker got together with the Democrats to hand over American military equipment and tens of billions of dollars in borrowed money to Ukraine and Israel. The GOP Speaker promised this would only happen if the bill first secured funding for border security, but then he just backed down.

This is not the only way the parties are going in directions that concern only small factions of their coalitions. The congressional Republicans’ response to protests against Israel’s campaign in Gaza was to run roughshod over the First Amendment.

The recently passed anti-Semitism bill is obscene and vandalizes one of the most cherished American rights. It also shows an utter disconnect from the GOP’s earlier expressed concerns about censorship of the handful of conservatives on campus. Everyone who voted for this law should be embarrassed at this unconstitutional law’s sycophancy to the donor class.

Other deficiencies in self-government are afoot and do not get enough attention. Trump is being persecuted with multiple completely absurd criminal prosecutions. These cases are being pursued through state court prosecutions in unfriendly venues, like Atlanta, Georgia, and New York City. He is also facing an even more sinister federal case, which threatens to place a cloud over every future president’s exercise of authority since post-election prosecutions will always be on the table. These attempts to kneecap the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party supposedly protect Our Democracy™.

There really is a uniparty, and it is very evident on matters like spending, foreign policy, tax policy, civil liberties, and the treatment of outsiders. Elected politicians don’t have control, so that means neither do the American people. The bureaucrats, of course, have some power, though theirs resides mostly in the form of a de facto veto of policy measures they do not like through slow-walking and other machinations.

The big donors are the real shot callers: the super wealthy, most of whom are concerned with maintaining their wealth but also with advancing their own, elite-skewed ideological views. Politicians who do their bidding get a cut, both directly in the form of PAC donations but also indirectly in the form of stock tips, insider knowledge of complex markets, intelligence on companies that will benefit from pending laws and regulations, and the like.

Thus, the number one priority of the political class is preserving the status quo in governance and preserving the wealth of the donor class, a portion of which flows to the politicians as a reward. Noticing and responding to public sentiment, setting conditions for the prosperity of the majority, or otherwise acting in the long-term interest of the country are largely irrelevant.

A Blind Ruling Class

Most of the political rituals of yesteryear, such as the debates and the in-person gladhanding with voters, led to the incorporation of public opinion into a politician’s knowledge of the world. Today, the political class is profoundly out of touch, often consisting of characters like Joe Biden, who is completely dependent on his handlers, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, who never had many dealings with the private sector other than as a source of donations. He was an activist, then a state representative, and then ran for an empty seat in Congress.

We call our system either a democracy or a republic, but oligarchy is a better descriptor for its present state. That is to say, we live in a world where a handful of companies own assets in excess of the GDP of entire countries; their owners make enormous political donations and also have control over media, finance, and other critical sectors of the economy, easily cajoling politicians to do their bidding.

Politics naturally reflects the character of a society and its various power centers. We were once a middle class country with more widely distributed wealth. This was widely considered an important foundation for republican self-government.

Maintaining and extending such conditions does not currently seem to be a priority for either party. You barely hear about taxes, inequality, safety nets, health care, the manufacturing sector, the stock market, good-paying jobs, trade policy, or much else that affects people’s day-to-day lives.

Republicans sometimes pounce on inflation, which has been bad and persistent. Yet neither party has a comprehensive agenda focused on cutting government spending or raising the collective welfare of the country. One notable exception was the economic nationalism that formed the centerpiece of Trump’s original agenda.

Symbolic issues—abortion, transsexuals, the supposed terrors of January 6, and the like—tend to suck all of the oxygen out of the room. Focusing on these issues, particularly when there is little likelihood of resolution, permits politicians in both parties to serve the interests of the billionaire oligarchs in the donor class while pretending to fight for the public.

This unaccountable and irresponsible system will continue if voters on both sides remain loyal to their parties and neglect to retaliate for “rug pulls.” It should have been obvious that the current GOP speaker would be a fink. Nothing about him screamed character, perseverance, or solidarity with the people, but here we are. Similarly, it should have been obvious to the economic left, which rallied for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, that Biden would do nothing for them either. This all persists because we allow it and because of the unknown and under-investigated ways elections and political outcomes are rigged.

There was a heartwarming moment during a recent campus Israel protest. At protests at the University of Alabama, both the pro-Palestine and pro-Israel cohorts began alternately shouting at one another the common and vulgar crystallization of public opinion: F—K Joe Biden. While he did promise to unite us, he probably did not mean to do it like that.

It was a good reminder that there is a lot of dissatisfaction on both sides with the indifference and lack of accountability in the system. Thus, there is strong support for an outsider candidate and dissident politics among voters in both parties. Two groups of young people are condemning the sitting president. This is what happens when a fraudulent, donor-dependent oligarchic system masquerades as a responsive and democratic one.

 

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES - MAY 6: US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at a Cinco de Mayo reception at the White House in Washington D.C., United States on May 6, 2024. (Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)