Last month, the Pew Research Center released the results of a new national study, titled “Americans’ Dismal Views of the Nation’s Politics.” It might as well be called “The United States’ Dismal Politics Alienates Most Americans.”
According to Pew, just 4 percent of Americans say our political system is working well while 63 percent have little or no confidence in it. Nearly a supermajority describe politics as “exhausting,” while only 26 percent of Americans hold positive views about the quality of candidates for public office.
These findings are not all that surprising. In a country that’s home to more billionaires than any other while the majority of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency, it doesn’t take a political scientist to notice that something is fundamentally wrong with this picture — and most Americans do.
But however bleak these statistics may be, they also suggest important openings for the Left. The report shows a growing disdain for both political parties and a widespread interest in changing our political system. A left-wing program to remove money from politics, reform electoral law, and break our two-party system could win mass support.
A “Democracy” for the Rich
When asked to describe the current state of politics in their own words, the word that came up second most among poll respondents (after “divisive”) was “corrupt.” Explicitly illegal corruption is certainly widespread throughout our political system — just look at Donald Trump’s self-enrichment as president, and the long history of Biden family members receiving dubiously acquired jobs and board seats. But the far more pervasive and pernicious form of corruption in the United States is completely legal: money in politics.
Following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision — arguably a judicial coup for the ultrarich — corporate spending on politics has ballooned. The 2016 presidential election cost the leading candidates over $2 billion dollars collectively, between their own fundraising and outside PACs. That number stood just below $4 billion for the 2020 presidential race. At the same time, while the average winning House campaign in 1990 spent a little over $400,000, in 2022 that number was nearly $3 million. For the Senate, winning races have seen an increase in average spending over that same time period from just under $4 million to over $26 million.
The largest donors to these campaigns have been a slew of billionaire investors and corporate executives like the liberal George Soros, the far-right Richard Uihlein, and the “centrist” Michael Bloomberg. The top ten contributors in the 2021–22 election cycle collectively gave over $638 million. The top industries to donate in the same cycle include finance, insurance, and real estate, which donated over $1.6 billion to candidates of both parties; the health care industry, which donated over $282 million; and energy and natural resource companies, which donated another $191 million.
It’s no wonder that Pew found widespread dissatisfaction with the role of money in politics. Eighty-five percent of respondents agree that the cost of political campaigns makes it hard for good people to run for office, 84 percent believe that special interest groups and lobbyists have too much influence in politics, and 72 percent think there should be limits on the amount of money that can be spent on campaigns.
After all, a country with democratic elections where the seats go to the highest bidder is hardly a real democracy. It is more like — to paraphrase Karl Marx — a committee to manage the affairs of the ruling class.
Despite widespread support for reining in the role of money in politics, most politicians do not share this priority. Across the two political parties, politicians are not only bought off by the ultrawealthy but are often extravagantly rich themselves. Republican Florida senator Rick Scott has a net worth of a quarter billion dollars, made from founding a for-profit health care company. Former Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi is worth $120 million (that amount nearly doubles if you include her husband’s fortune). Democratic senator Joe Manchin owns a company that sells waste coal to power plants in his home state of West Virginia, and his daughter is a pharmaceutical company executive.
The Boss Has Two Parties
The Pew report also documents increasing disapproval of both political parties. In 1994, the percent of Americans who held unfavorable views of both major political parties stood at a measly 6 percent. That same number has risen to 28 percent today. It is at 34 percent among people ages thirty to forty-nine, and at 37 percent among people ages eighteen to twenty-nine.
The polls report that 37 percent of Americans say the statement “I wish there were more political parties to choose from” describes their views extremely well. Another 31 percent said this statement described their views somewhat well. A supermajority of Americans, then, are unsatisfied with our two-party duopoly.
Unfortunately, forming a successful third party is much easier said than done. Beyond restrictive ballot access laws that require high numbers of signatures and votes to even get a ballot line, the structure of our election system creates strong incentives against voting for third-party candidates. The vast majority of races in the United States are single-seat districts where the person who gets the most votes wins. The result is the notorious “spoiler effect”: voters who would otherwise opt for a third party risk throwing the election to their least-preferred candidate, usually leading them to vote for the more viable major-party candidate who they see as “the lesser of two evils.”
Many other countries have multimember, proportional representation elections. In this system, multiple representatives are elected from each district, proportional to the vote percentage their party received in the district. Multimember districts of this kind remove the spoiler effect, allowing for minor parties to challenge the dominant ones. Reforms to move the United States toward multimember districts, like the Fair Representation Act that was introduced in 2017 and 2021, would help break corporate Republicans and Democrats’ chokehold on US politics.
Working-class movements around the world have long fought for proportional representation to give ordinary people a greater say in their political systems. In fact, proportional representation was the very first demand of the German Social Democratic Party’s famous 1891 Erfurt Program.
But we don’t have to go back a hundred years to find struggles for proportional representation. Following 2011 student uprisings against neoliberalism in Chile’s education system, a few of the leaders of the student movement were elected to congress independent of the dominant center-left coalition. Chile technically had proportional representation, but districts elected just two representatives, meaning that the top two vote-getters would take office, which effectively created a two-party system similar to the United States’. But after student movement leaders came into office, their movement won major electoral reforms to expand the number of representatives from each district. This in turn allowed the new insurgent left coalition, the Frente Amplio, to win seventeen more seats in the 2017 elections, effectively breaking up Chile’s postdictatorship two-party system. Similarly, union organizers and activists on the left wing of New Zealand’s Labour Party built a successful movement for proportional representation that won in 1993.
It’s clear that most people are unhappy with our current two-party system. The path to a new system, and to a party that represents the interests of working-class people, likely runs through these kinds of reforms. The Left would do well to champion them.
Righteous Anger, Righteous Solutions
Americans are angry, and they’re right to be. A majority of Americans want to protect abortion rights, address climate change, establish a single-payer universal health care system, reduce gun violence, and redistribute the vast wealth being hoarded by the very rich. These views are not meaningfully shared by economic elites or most Democratic or Republican politicians.
More and more Americans are fed up with both parties. The Democratic Party, which became the home for working-class voters for decades after FDR’s New Deal, is now replacing its working-class base with wealthier, more educated suburbanites, while a greater share of lower-income and less-educated voters are moving to the GOP. Recent New York Times polling has even shown big declines in support for Joe Biden from people of color, particularly young people of color, those without a college degree, and those who make less than $100,000 a year. These voters, increasingly dissatisfied with the party that claims to represent them, will be crucial to any left alternative to the Democrats.
The path to a real democracy will likely be long and arduous. But there is a path nonetheless. It will require ending the massive influence of money in politics and overhauling our electoral system. Millions of people across the United States are sick of the status quo and want something different. It’s up to the Left to articulate an alternative and help organize them into the movement capable of delivering it.