How to Save Democracy: Student Perspectives

As part of a political science course, PSPS 4200: Repairing American Democracy, Dr. Jeremy Strickler assigned group projects in which students were to tackle one issue facing American democracy. Groups were advised to address these issues by raising public awareness through methods like a social media campaign or writing an op-ed in a newspaper. Their pieces are below.

By Gabby Eilf, Alex Haynes, and Jillian Waterhouse

Income Inequality is a Parasite

Where We’ve Been

Income inequality is a threat to American democracy. When the financial gap between rich and poor widens, so does the political gap. Financial control is everything in America, as it gives political players with the most funding the most advantage, whether this be through political lobbying, manipulating the court system, campaign advertising, or simple access to basic participation rights like voting. Though our current situation seems dire, this is not the first time in U.S. history that citizens have faced the dangerous combination of massive wealth inequality and decline in social capital– one that directly threatens our democracy.

In fact, the state of income equality we experience now is very similar to that of the Gilded Age. While the top 1% richest Americans alone currently own nearly 35% of all wealth in the U.S., this figure was even higher in 1890, peaking at around 50%. Similarly, the labor market of the past mirrors that of the present day. However, in 2021, we are currently experiencing the lowest union density since the rise of union participation in the late 1800s– a new danger, as wealth inequality and union density have been inextricably linked throughout American history.

As demonstrated by what we know about American political development, this abysmal level of income inequality and lack of political power is unsustainable. Frustration with similar conditions sparked a massive wave of class conflict in the form of strikes and grassroots organizing, which ushered in the New Deal and led to radically redistributed wealth for the first time in U.S. history. By looking to the past and examining where we are now, we can change the trajectory of our political futures. We just have to find a similar spark.

Where We Are

Since the 1980s, income inequality in the United States has grown at a rapid pace greater than that of any of our peer countries. Income inequality is the driving force behind widespread dissatisfaction in living standards across the country, as the majority of income growth disproportionately benefits the already wealthy. Across the U.S., wages are stagnating, mortality rates are rising, and the life expectancy gap between financial extremes is growing. To put it simply– while the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer…and it’s getting worse.

The Covid-19 pandemic had devastating economic effects on the average working class American. Small businesses suffered. Eviction rates soared. Over 40 million individuals filed for unemployment between March and June of 2020. In the meantime, America’s billionaires collectively gained an average of $42,000,000,000 per week. While high-income households and the notably rich maintained their financial well-being throughout the year, low-income households took the blow. Stimulus checks came too late for many Americans, in an amount too low to be significant enough to even temporarily relieve financial stress for those who were suffering the most. The disparities in daily economic realities between the rich and the poor were shocking, though the income inequality gap had been steadily widening for years.

Income inequality has become an aspect of American society that is impossible to ignore. With films like “Parasite” winning the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture and celebrity college admissions bribery scandals dominating pop culture outlets, it has become increasingly obvious that Americans are feeling the weight of the wealth gap. In daily life, income inequality permeates every mundane aspect of our realities– whether through taking out student loans to afford an education, joining labor unions to advocate for liveable wages and working conditions, or questioning if we’re even able to truly participate in our democracy, all while watching the extraordinarily rich bend the rules and escape the consequences.

Where We’re Going

Democracy can mean different things to different people, though it’s most commonly recognized by individual rights, autonomy, and political participation. Ideally, every person has equal access and ability to participate in their government in a democracy, regardless of their wealth status. Unfortunately for us, the United States is failing to meet these standards. With high economic inequality, citizen participation in government has been limited. The current challenge in the United States is not necessarily that we have income inequality, but how fast that inequality is growing. The financial gap is constantly expanding, with concentrated wealth going to fewer and fewer people, the majority of whom are already wealthy. With this disparity, the “middle class” is beginning to fall through the cracks. As the income gap widens, so does the threat to our democracy.

Because the affluent use their standing in life to forward their political gains, the policy and laws in the United States reflect their interest (see the effects of Citizens United v. FEC). As a consequence, public policy is increasingly created only with benefits for the financially elite. As the interests and voices of the working class go unrepresented in legislation, public trust in political and economic systems decreases. Trust in the government is vital for a thriving democracy. The belief that our representatives have our best interests in mind is increasingly a rarity, a harmful side effect of the deterioration of social capital as a result of severe income inequality. This lack of social capital greatly shapes our civic engagement. After all, if a minority of affluents in our country have the most political power and they exclusively serve their interests, why bother attending a city council meeting? How are we expected to make time to vote when we all seem to be working two jobs, and are primarily concerned with how we’re going to eat tomorrow? We must close the income inequality gap to inspire political participation and save our democracy.

Wait…There’s Still Hope!

At this point, if you’re anything like us, you may be feeling a bit hopeless about the daunting challenge of overcoming economic inequality. You might be asking yourself, “What can I, a college student, possibly do?”

  1. Support legislation that will help reduce the gap of economic inequality and its impact on voting. Promote these policies on your social media, talk about them with your friends and neighbors. Call, email, and use social media to contact your Congressional representatives. Tennessee’s current Senators are Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty. You can find your TN representative here.
  2. Current bill H.R. 1: For the People Act of 2021 was passed in the House of Representatives on March 3rd and is waiting to be considered in the Senate. This bill proposes restricting campaign finances, increasing voting rights, and the prevention of gerrymandering.
  3. If passed, House joint resolution H.J.Res.1 would set restrictions in the amount of influence dark money and special interest may have on election campaigns. This joint resolution is currently being reviewed in the House Subcommittee of Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.
  4. Constitutional amendments have recently been proposed to limit the damaging impacts of the Citizens United ruling.
  5. Advocate for raising the minimum wage and imposing higher taxes for those with higher incomes. Promote policies in support of universal pre-K, affordable childcare, and lowered college tuition.
  6. Join a labor union if possible. Publicly speak up for your rights and the rights of your coworkers.
  7. Support small businesses instead of large corporations. Your money is your vote.
  8. Reconnect with your communities. Genuine relationships with those around you are vital to rebuilding the sense of togetherness and importance that once helped us fight for our freedoms before. Though income inequality is a major threat, many have begun to forget why democracy even matters. Battling income inequality is only one piece of the puzzle.

Why the Senate Sucks

By Joseph Page, Emmie Stumbo, and Evelina Kertay

The United States Senate, the upper chamber of Congress, consistently undermines the will of the American public. In the summer of 2019 the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (More Act). The legislation later died in committee in the Senate. Most recently in March, the Senate rejected legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. However, according to a poll by Pew Research, 67% of Americans are in favor of marijuana legalization and 62% of American favor a minimum wage increase. This sheer disregard for the will of the American public is not just the sum of indifference by political actors, but rather a structural design for why this institution sucks. The Senate was founded by the United States Constitution and met for the first time in 1789 in New York City. However, its structure did not have a strong consensus among America’s founding fathers. Two year prior to the Senate’s inaugural meeting the founding fathers met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to debate what would be America’s new form of government. The controversy at the convention was whether to apportion the Senate based on equal or proportional representation. Proportional representation would have allocated Senators based on the population, similar to the House of Representatives. Equal representation is the current make-up of the Senate where each state is allocated an equal number of Senators. On the final vote at the Constitutional Convention that embedded equal representation in our Constitution, the five states that voted in favor only represented one-third of the population at the time. The four states voting against however, represented the remaining two-thirds of the nation. The root problem with some of our undemocratic institutions like the Senate may stem from a larger historic issue which was the structure of the Constitutional Convention. Had the convention been more democratic by having delegates represent the population instead of states, the makeup of the United States Senate would probably look drastically different today. 

So, what is the status of senate representation today? In short, it’s worse than ever before. The 40 million people in California are represented by the same number of senators as the 600,000 people in Wyoming, and if you favor the argument that landscape or size necessitates more representation, Vermont has two senators representing only 650,000 people. “By 2040, it is estimated that 40% of the American population will be concentrated in just five states.” This brings up serious issues with representation in all three branches of government, but in the Senate, this means that public policy is consistently not representative of the people. Every two years, one third of senators are up for re-election. In the 2018 midterms, Republican candidates for Senate one 38% of the total votes for Senate and Democratic candidates won 58%; yet the Republicans still managed to increase their majority. Even if one does concede that a greater number of toss-up elections could have been in a single election cycle, a discrepancy that large does not happen in a truly representative democracy. Today, the senate is evenly split between the two parties, but Democratic senators represent 40 million more people than Republicans. This is a problem for democracy because how can public policy be responsive to the people without the majority of people having proportional representation in Congress? While it is obvious that the Founders created institutions to put checks on pure majoritarian rule, this argument completely dismisses American political development overtime, and it is hard to imagine that the inequalities of representation today constitute a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The problems with the Senate today don’t have to be solved by deciding whether or not the founders were wrong in their final decisions about the senate, Electoral College, and the balance of power between large and small states. We have to recognize, however, that changes in our politics, demographics, and population distribution over time have made these institutions a serious problem for equal representation, which is vital for a healthy democracy in which politics and policy are responsive to the majority of Americans.

So, what can be done about the problems of the Senate? Well, there have been several concepts floated over time. Some such as Burt Neuborne of NYU have suggested that large states be split into several smaller ones so that the average representation per person is increased. Perhaps break California into the State of Jefferson, South California, East California, and West California. Maybe break up Texas into 5 states as is provided for in their constitution (yes, really. It’s in their constitution). Others like Eric W. Orts in the Atlantic have suggested every state receive at least one senator but the rest be proportionally distributed, for every 1/100th of the population a state would receive an extra senator. This would leave California with 12 senators, Texas with 9, and Florida and New York with 6. A final victory for the opposition of the Philadelphia convention, both houses proportionally distributed.  Or the Senate could even be abolished entirely, and the US becomes a unicameral government like the Scandinavian nations.

None of these solutions are perfect, they all would require some compromises. But it has become increasingly clear that the current Senate is untenable. The citizens of states like Montana having 67 times the Senate representation of those in California is a travesty to our democracy. What is important is for all citizens regardless of party to begin an open dialogue about the problems with the system and how to create a more democratic america. And maybe one day all Americans can get together and agree that the Senate sucks.

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