The 2016 race for presidency has just begun, and it has already showcased one of the most undemocratic phenomena pervading the American body politic. To combat this infection, we must fundamentally redefine our political culture.
Even though it’s April 2015, about 18 months until the next general election, the 2016 presidential race is, unfortunately, already in full swing. Just last week, Hillary Clinton announced that she will be running for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Other Republican hopefuls began their campaign even earlier. Rand Paul, for example, announced late last month.
Elections are typically vain and lack substance, especially in the early months, but this cycle has reflected a particularly troublesome phenomenon — the commercialization of campaigns.
Take two front-running candidates — Clinton and Paul. Major portions of their campaign websites are “store” sections, where one is offered a plethora of ways to “support” his/her candidate. Beyond the normal obnoxious bumper stickers and buttons, if you are a Clinton fan, you can now also wear “your heart on your sleeve” with “classic die struck cufflinks, featuring the iconic Herculean HRC logo.” Paul followers, on the other hand, can shade out the tyrannical sun with a pair of Rand Raybans — “just in time for a cool Rand summer.”
But if these products are too expensive, you can always just buy one of the candidate’s iPhone cases. In fact, if you’re a Paul loyalist, this not only means you can “protect your phone,” but also “your privacy,” an allusion to his unyielding policy stance against government data collection.
Though Clinton and Paul are great examples of this situation, they are just symptoms of broader issues. Indeed, they are not the exception, but the rule.
Most dangerously, the commercial efforts of these two reflect a broader commodification of politics. Candidates — and even their policies — are literally something to consume, whether one is plastering them on the back of their iPhones or on the sides of their heads. Voting, similar to buying a phone case, becomes a market decision, and democratic participation is reduced to an experience similar to that of a shopping trip to Wal-Mart.
And the commodification of politics doesn’t merely denigrate and mask the importance of political deliberation — it also serves a material end.
When politics are marketized, those with the most purchasing power have a louder voice. That is to say: rich folks end up with a disproportionate amount of sway in our political institutions, while working and poor people, on the other hand — similar, in fact, to commercial culture — are marginalized and left with little influence on elected officials.
This isn’t merely a talking point; it’s empirically illustrated. A 2014 study by political scientists Martin Gilens, of Princeton University, and Benjamin Pag, of Northwestern University, concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
The marketization of politics was intensified by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited campaign contributions from private donors. Since this decision, our political system has been flooded with money, and our elections have been turned into fundraising competitions, if not outright auctions.
Thus, a constitutional amendment limiting private campaign contributions would mitigate some of the damage done by Citizens United, and help to de-commodify politics. Instituting publicly-financed elections would help even more.
But to unveil the monumental significance of politics and give poor and marginalized people a more influential voice, we must work for a more fundamental change. We must fight for a political culture that is not predicated on money, consumption or market decisions — but on egalitarianism, participatory democracy and collective deliberation.