The United States faces many grave challenges, such as declining living standards, global warming, rogue nuclear regimes, gun violence and now domestic terrorism. But none are as fundamental as or more pressing than the decline of democracy.
Last week's vote in the United States Senate to defeat a proposal for more thorough background checks for gun buyers is the new poster child for popular disgust with Congress. It's been 125 days since the massacre in Newton, Connecticut. 20 kids and six adults lost their lives and Congress hasn't done a thing to curb gun violence.
The president has certainly done his part and more. A clear majority of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons, but Senators ignored their constituencies. (57 percent favor-41 percent oppose, ABC News/Washington Post). Even worse, nine of ten people favor background checks for gun purchases but Congress couldn't even get that right. (91 percent, ABC News/Washington Post.)
Even if the Senate had passed the background check proposal it would have almost certainly failed in the House of Representatives, which the National Rifle Association owns gun lock, gun stock and gun barrel. The founders created the House of Representatives as the "peoples' house," but that was long ago and far away. Last year, Democratic House candidates won a majority of the vote but Republicans harvested the majority of seats.
Right now fewer than one in five Americans gives Congress a positive job rating. (18 percent, Gallup). The abject failure of Congress to respond to the public's concern about rampant gun violence means that grade will get even lower. The questions are how low Congressional approval can go and how long democracy can endure when one of the three branches of the federal government is completely unresponsive to the public it should represent.
Gun control isn't the only area of concern in which Congress is completely clueless. Seven out of ten Americans favor an increase in the minimum wage to $9.25 but that won't even get a vote in the GOP dominated House (71 percent, Gallup). Less than one out of every five people favor cuts in Medicare and Social Security, but both the president and congressional Republicans want to hack at health care and pensions for seniors (18 percent, CBS News).
Why is Congress able to ignore public opinion? Because it can do anything it wants with the financial backing of corporate America. Forty two of the forty five U.S. Senators who voted against background checks received campaign contributions from the NRA. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that corporate America donated $1.3 billion to party committees and politicians last year.
That figure does not include the money that corporations spend in independent expenditure campaigns. The corporate money in the 2012 campaign dwarfed the contributions from labor unions. So it shouldn't be a surprise that corporations prosper while the standard of living for working families continues to decline.
An unresponsive Congress isn't the only challenge to democracy. The right to vote has steadily expanded all through history, except in late 19th century Jim Crow America. In the early days of our republic, only white men with property enjoyed suffrage. By the 1830's all white men got the right to vote. Women finally received their due in 1920. And except for a few years right after the Civil War, the vote came for many black Americans only 50 years ago.
Now, Republican governors and state legislators want to roll back the clock and the tide of American history by finding ingenious ways to prevent black and Latino voters from fully enjoying their rights as citizens.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his famous treatise celebrating our great democracy, "Democracy in America," in 1824. If he had written the book today, the title would be either "Democracy in America?", "Democracy in Decline" or even "Democracy at Death's Door." I'm optimistic that democracy can revive itself, but it will take a lot of work and a lot of commitment from Americans who take their freedom for granted.
In post-Citizens United America, corporations are people, politicians are bought and people are peasants. The U.S. faced the same problem late in the 19th century when U.S. Senators represented companies rather than their constituents. But democracy survived and the excesses of the gilded age led to a renewal of economic populism during the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The sooner that happens, the better off we all will be.