America is sometimes characterized in its most exultant propaganda as the shining city upon a hill, history’s greatest experiment in self-governance. In the wee hours of December 2, though, it failed to live up to that marvelous hype. What happened in the United States Senate that day was a travesty that can accurately be described as democracy in reverse. An unpopular group of lawmakers passed an extremely unpopular bill, which will eventually be signed into law by an extremely unpopular president for the benefit of a small number of citizens.
So unpopular are the major pieces involved that if you combined the ratings for President Trump, Senator Mitch McConnell, and the Republican tax plan, approval still wouldn’t be unanimous. McConnell, one of the least popular lawmakers in the country, stands at 33 percent approval. His fellow Republicans are also, by and large, unpopular and losing ground. President Trump’s approval rating is 35 percent, and the tax plan itself is approved of by a meager 29 percent of Americans.
That such deeply unpopular people could pass such deeply unpopular legislation, which will impact every American for generations to come, means we have a major crisis of democracy. Part of the problem is low voter turnout. Unpopular Democratic alternatives and widespread voter suppression go a long way toward preventing any significant opposition from mobilizing at the ballot box. Perhaps most prohibitive, though, is the role of money in politics. It’s virtually impossible to run a winning campaign for national office without substantial contributions from corporate special interests.
Over the last several months, as Republicans struggled to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pass tax reform, that reality was clearer than ever. Republican donors openly threatened their servants in Congress, warning them to “Get it done or don’t ever call me again,” according to one representative. One donor used a particularly telling analogy: “I can’t borrow money to build a building and then not follow through, which is what these guys are doing.”
Rich donors expect results from the politicians they pay. It’s not surprising, then, that a party funded by multi-billionaires would enact policies that are unfavorable to ordinary people. Americans rightly view the GOP tax plan as a huge giveaway to the rich. For much of the poor and middle class, the bill actually may represent a substantial tax increase, even as cuts are made to services that millions of them rely on.
It’s not just on the tax bill. Trump’s signature campaign issue, construction of a wall along the Mexican border, is opposed by 56 percent of Americans. And his proposal to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, likely to open the land up for oil and gas exploration, is mixed at best, with two thirds of Utahans opposed to shrinking Escalante – a position that also puts them at odds with most of their state leaders.
Voter turnout is always comparably low in American elections. But given his radically corrupt and unpopular agenda, it’s particularly galling to note that Trump was elected by a meager 26 percent of eligible voters. Majorities of the American people regularly describe him as vulgar, untrustworthy and unfit for office. He is out of step with most Americans on virtually everything, and yet he is free to pursue the most radically far-right platform Americans have seen in generations.
Tax reform still has a long way to go. The Senate and House bills must be reconciled with one another. Members of Congress were given mere hours to read the nearly 500-page document before it was voted on, and some members hastily added in handwritten notes that could introduce more bugs and loopholes to the code. But Republicans have taken a giant step toward giving their billionaire donors what they want more than anything: even more money.
In 2014, an academic study concluded that the United States is an oligarchy – a society controlled by the rich. There’s very little that’s genuinely democratic about the American system of governance. Democrats, in their race with Republicans to the well of big money, have sold out and left more than half the country effectively unrepresented. Trump’s appointment of Goldman Sachs alumni and Koch Industries lackeys to high government positions has all but formalized the complete takeover of the US government by corporate interests.
How it came to be that one of the most unpopular presidents, leading one of the most unpopular parties, passed one of the most unpopular legislative agendas in history is something that anyone who takes public will seriously must reckon with. Unless trends in voter suppression and political financing are reversed, history will deem America’s bold experiment in self-governance a failure.