While millions of Americans cast their ballots early this year, resulting in record turnout, only a tiny fraction of them voted for a candidate other than Donald Trump or Joe Biden. But do voters really think that either of these men deserve the job? Trump is one of the most hated Presidents in US history. Biden’s not well liked either, as it turns out. Many left-leaning and working-class voters are frustrated by his lackluster policy proposals and adherence to the status quo. According to a recent Fox News poll, 40% of those who are voting for Biden are “mainly” voting to oppose Trump.
But as establishment Democrats and liberal talking heads are so quick to remind us, there are no other options. “To Save Democracy, Vote for Joe Biden,” Brian Klaas writes in the Washington Post. “We can’t afford to let Donald Trump continue to endanger the lives and livelihoods of every American,” Elizabeth Warren says in her endorsement. The Economist tells us, “Why it has to be Biden” (spoiler: it’s because he’s not Trump). On Biden’s own campaign website, a pop-up donation ad declares, “Together, we can make Donald Trump a one term President.” In the former VP’s campaign announcement video, he called out Trump as a “threat to this nation… unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” framing the race as a “battle for the heart of the nation”. Despite the multi-issue platform Biden is supposedly running on, the former VP is a single-issue candidate. Trump was the issue.
So how did we reach this crossroads? This year, the so-called “world’s greatest democracy” forced voters to choose between neo-fascism and mediocre liberalism— and it is very mediocre, despite all the fawning fluff pieces that think-tanks churn out every week. Even if we can expect a corporate-backed politician to keep his promises (we can’t), what exactly is Joe Biden promising? Most Americans support Medicare For All; Biden doesn’t. Most Americans support legalizing weed; Biden doesn’t. He’s been iffy on fossil fuels and climate change, and he’s rejected de-funding America’s militarized, over-funded and corrupt police departments. Obama, his former running-mate, was not exactly known for keeping promises, either. Of course, this isn’t the first time Americans have found ourselves choosing between President Bad and President Worse. It tends to happen every four years, and Americans are sick of it. (According to Google Trends, searches for the term “lesser of two evils” peaked during the 2016 election season. Apparently voters had made up their minds this time around.) Polls by Gallup have shown that a majority of us want a viable third party to vote for. Over two-thirds of us (even poor Republicans) agree that corporations and wealthy elites have too much influence on our politics.
But neither of those things are likely to change anytime soon, because working-class people don’t have a seat at the table. Our politicians are those “wealthy elites”, and it’s not in their interest to let us into the electoral game. As of 2014, the median net worth of U.S. lawmakers was $1,008,767, most of it coming from investments and property ownership. The median wealth of U.S. households at the time was $81,850, or about eight percent of what the average politician was worth. You can be sure Congress hasn’t been getting poorer since then (though the poor have—our beloved Pres. Trump, himself a multimillionaire, has overseen the highest level of income inequality in over half a century).
A significant chunk of that money comes from investments in companies that those same lawmakers are in charge of regulating, a recent Guardian investigation found. And that’s not to mention the huge sums of cash that private interests fork out to politicians every election cycle. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, business interests donated over $4.5 billion dollars to American political campaigns this year. It would be comforting to believe that these captains of industry fund our politicians out of a love of democracy and selfless regard for the public interest, but sadly that’s not the case. In 2014, a pair of political science scholars published a study collecting data from two decades of political policy surveys, which suggested that most of the time, U.S. citizens only get the policy changes they want if the ultra-wealthy want them too. Some of their claims have been disputed, but the facts of America’s political situation prove the study’s conclusions.
Take Peter Thiel. He’s the cofounder of Palantir Technologies, a company that supplies surveillance data to the likes of the CIA and ICE. In 2016, Thiel donated about $1.25 million dollars to Trump’s 2016 campaign, and about $3.3 million to Republicans in total. After Trump’s victory, the new president-elect appointed Thiel as a vice-chair of the new administration’s transition committee, giving him a direct line into the Oval Office. (Michael Bloomberg’s company, Bloomberg LP, was the single largest contributor to Biden’s campaign. If Biden doesn’t give Bloomberg a high-ranking position in his cabinet, I’ll eat my hat.) Palantir, which Thiel owns a majority stake in, made just under $86 million off of contracts with Trump’s Department of Defense that year. That’s almost twice the amount the DoD contracted with Palantir for in 2015 ($49,913,965).
Thiel joined the ranks of high-paying donors granted direct access to government in exchange for their contributions. Trump is infamous for this kind of power auctioneering, and his love for nepotism is also well-known. But Obama was no less guilty. After his successful election, “nearly 80 percent of those [donors] who collected more than $500,000 for Obama took ‘key administration posts,'” iWatch News reported.
The total number of appointees who bundled donations for his campaign came out to nearly 200. Remember, both of these Presidents ran on vows to get rid of “special interests” and to “drain the swamp”. But actions speak louder than words. If corporate handouts by either administration over the past twelve years tell us anything, it’s that the swamp is alive and well.
The distressing reality is that in America, as in every capitalist country, the swamp is built into the system. From corporate-interest groups handing thousands of bills to legislators for them to sign into law, to billion-dollar bank bailouts by politicians who hold millions in stock in those banks, the evidence is everywhere. Our country was created by wealthy white landowners, to support the interests of wealthy white landowners, and that’s not going to change as long as America stands. You might suggest that we change the system from the inside. Good luck if you’re not rolling in cash. The average cost of a seat in the Senate is over $10 million.
Of course, if you want to go for the House it’ll only run you a couple million. Either way, prepare to make some big promises to big business. Grassroots campaign funding is possible, as Bernie Sanders has done, but mainstream Democrats and Republicans are always capable of outspending and so defeating alternative campaigns. Ballot access laws (which those same mainstream politicians wrote and passed into law) also impose punishing restrictions on third parties and independents that the established powers don’t have to face. To compete for power in any significant way, a third party faces the prospect of having to raise (at least) tens of millions of dollars and jump through a series of increasingly small bureaucratic hoops which vary from state to state.
What should working-class Americans do, then? Our political system is corrupt, our politicians don’t represent our interests, and making any change for the better is next to impossible even if you win a seat at the table. Biden has described this election as a “battle for the heart of the nation”; in reality, it’s more of a battle for the nation’s wallet. Trying to get anything done by voting is like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.
So don’t limit yourself to voting. When you need a voice, don’t depend on the elites: they only listen to money. Depend on your community. If your housing is unlivable, get together with your neighbors and take action against your landlord, because your mayor sure won’t. If your boss is threatening to cut your benefits, get together with your coworkers and form a union, because your state Senator doesn’t give a damn. And if the cops are murdering people in the streets, join your community out in those streets and fight back, because in a corrupt and murderous system it is right to rebel. America doesn’t care for the folks who built it from the ground up. Let’s build a system that does.