When the Republicans try to throw millions of citizens off health care, when they support a tax bill offering crumbs to the middle class and massive dollars to the rich exacerbating already serious economic inequality, when they seek to punish those living in states that do not vote Republican, and when they support an incompetent, mentally impoverished, mean-spirited President who blatantly seeks to help those who voted for him and no one else, we have to ask how things could have gone so wrong. The answer is complicated. Here is a partial answer.
We can begin by recognizing that this was not the plan. The Framers sought to assure that members of Congress would be people who sought the common good and could be thought of as virtuous persons. They for the most part recognized that the People would have to possess sufficient virtue to assure quality representation. The citizenry would have to be concerned about the common good, not merely their own interests.
They worried, however, about corruption. They believed that corruption had many sources including luxury and economic inequality. As to luxury, we live in a society in which the top hundred advertisers spent $137.8 billion or more per year, advertising which creates a nation of consumers instead of citizens. It is no wonder that our materialistic society is permeated with political ignorance. Our “citizens” are focused on more goods, not the common good.
As to economic equality, the Framers worried that a concentration of wealth would undermine checks on political power and lead to corruption at the top. But the United States has become a country of massive economic inequality. In 2012, the top 10% of earners took home 50% of the Nation’s income, the highest percentage in a hundred years! The top 1% took home 20% of the Nations income. See here. Compounding this problem, our campaign finance system encourages politicians to take positions that will attract dollars from wealthy donors even when that comes at the expense of the common good (which it so frequently does).
In light of the concerns leading to our Constitution, it is stunning that the multi-billion dollar deluge of commercial advertising is protected under the First Amendment; it is even more shocking that the wealthy have a First Amendment right to buy influence, showering billions of dollars to drown out our democracy.
The Framers were concerned about corruption. Regrettably, we have it.