The idea of America that most of us have come to embrace — that of a functioning democracy responsible and responsive to its citizens who are entitled to vote and whose votes are equal — is lost. In fact, it may never have existed in that way at all. And the trends in society are now toward the worse rather than the better.
The founders of this country never intended for everyone to vote, and they didn’t even include a right to vote in the Constitution. Instead they let voting default to the states, which erected their own barriers to the ballot. As such, the right to vote has expanded and contracted over time.
In the beginning, generally speaking, property-owning white men were the only people allowed to vote. That franchise has expanded over time to include all white men, black men, women and so forth. But, there remain efforts to restrict access to the ballot, particularly for black and brown people in this country.
This rash of new restrictions seems to have been ignited by the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president. As the Brennan Center for Justice has pointed out, “After the 2010 election, state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote.” As the center documented:
“Overall, 25 states have put in place new restrictions since then — 15 states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place (including six states with strict photo ID requirements), 12 have laws making it harder for citizens to register (and stay registered), 10 made it more difficult to vote early or absentee, and three took action to make it harder to restore voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.”
In fact the idea of “one person, one vote” wasn’t fully invoked in the United States until the 1960s, when Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the decision for Reynolds v. Sims in 1964: “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing — one person, one vote.”
Furthermore, big money from corporations and candidates themselves is corrupting the process and wielding outsize influence on voters’ choices.
In the 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy came under attack for spending what his competitor Hubert Humphrey thought an unseemly amount on a political campaign. As CBS reported:
“Humphrey called Kennedy’s campaign ‘the most highly financed, the most plush, the most extravagant in the history of politics in the U.S.’ At that point, Kennedy had spent $72,000 (about $575,000, in today’s dollars) on radio, TV and mailers in Wisconsin.”
Kennedy defended himself by pointing out that “President Eisenhower’s campaign in 1952, when costs were lower, was $2,500,000.” That was still only about $20 million in today’s value.
Compare that to the nearly $1 billion Donald Trump raised in 2016 and the nearly $1.5 billion raised by Hillary Clinton.
And, the outside spending — political spending by outside groups, excluding party committees — has skyrocketed in the last couple of decades. From 1990 to 2002, it rarely broke the million-dollar mark, according to OpenSecrets.org. In 2016, it reached $178 million.
This is to say nothing of how Russia’s political influence campaign exposed just how vulnerable individual Americans were to being manipulated by misinformation.
Our electoral process has become corrupted, with politicians seeking to block some from the ballot and plutocrats seeking to beguile those who would vote.
Now, with the Trump impeachment, we are seeing that the structure of government is also showing signs of fracture.
There has been no doubt, since the White House released the quasitranscript of the phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, that Trump had been engaged in a corrupt act when trying to pressure the Ukrainians to announce an investigation of the Bidens. Indeed, this month, the Government Accountability Office determined that Trump broke the law when withholding funds to Ukraine as part of his pressure campaign.
Then, Trump did everything within his power to conceal what he had done when the House of Representatives launched its impeachment investigation.
Now, Senate Republicans stand poised to cement in precedent, by way of an acquittal, that the president who thought himself king, who considers himself above the law, is in fact above the law. Oaths be damned. Constitution be damned.
An acquittal will say to the world, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the checks and balances built into the Constitution are fatally flawed and unworkable, that they are compromised to the partisanship and therefore unworkable and worthless.
The Senate will be saying to America that corruption is an acceptable feature of the executive branch. This will be another devastating blow to electoral confidence and to trust in government.
Everything from who can vote, how they vote, who influences that vote, who is elected by that vote and who is accountable having been voted in, is broken.
American, as an idea, as a representative democracy with the power ultimately vested in the people and accountable to the people, is vanishing like a vapor.
Charles M. Blow is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.