What Is to Be Done?: On “Democracy in America?”

By Megan SandbergJanuary 6, 2018

What Is to Be Done?: On “Democracy in America?”

Democracy in America? by Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens

TWELVE MEN IN IRAN constitute the “Guardian Council,” a political body ensuring the success of candidates only they find desirable. In 2013, they ignored all 30 women who vied for the ballot, and kept the candidates attuned to their own beliefs. To Americans, this oppressive system sounds antithetical to our nation’s defining principles of democracy. To Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens of Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It, these discriminatory practices are perfectly comparable to the United States’s election cycles.

Page and Gilens’s work — partial textbook, partial call for activism — is organized into three parts: an introduction to democracy, “what has gone wrong,” and “what can be done.” Their prime concern, however, is political misconduct, and you can’t blame them for this disproportionality in light of current circumstances. Still, they manage to maintain a sense of neutrality among liberal-leaning beliefs, and the writing remains informative without sliding into pathos-induced rants.

Perhaps even more optimistically, this book occasionally reminds us of the capability of the American people: they care about politics, they are educated, and they have voices worth listening to. But the authors are talking mostly about the lower and middle classes here, with great suspicion trained on billionaires and corporations legally (and questionably) recognized as “people.” The book’s greatest target, however, is the ocean of money released into state and federal elections each year.

Some representatives have even admitted prioritizing their expanding monetary collection:

In his wry preretirement “Confessions,” Representative Steve Israel estimated that he had spent roughly 4,200 hours in “call time,” whispering sweet nothings to potential donors; that he had attended about 1,600 fund-raisers for his own campaigns, and that he had raised nearly $20 million per election cycle.

Page and Gilens carefully assess the corporation donations to both Democrats and Republicans, although they claim two-thirds of billionaire dollars are funneled solely toward Republican candidates.

Despite this, it’s clear both parties spend much more time seducing potential donors rather than managing their constituents. The disparity between these two forces widen even farther in presidential elections, where campaigns require not millions, but billions. This prerequisite creates an imbalance between government officials and the majority of whom they preside over; “economic inequality begets political inequality, which, in turn, makes it harder to address economic inequality.”

While current laws restrict spending limits, Super PACs are excluded as long as they indirectly donate to a candidate (they can spend millions on advertising or other fruitful opportunities). When the donor is a corporation, the normally illegal bribery is implicit. Page and Gilens conclude their condemnation of corporations and politicians with two disturbing revelations: the Koch Brothers are now as rich as the Republican Party itself, and ExxonMobil pays for research to prove climate change is a hoax.

If legal bribery wasn’t persuasive enough, the authors expose other practices fundamental to gaming elections. Lobbyists offer “revolving door employment,” silently offering senators a job post-Congress if they side with their organization. Most notably, the NRA consistently lobbies Congress to retract gun reforms, despite a horrific increase in mass shootings. Page and Gilens establish the underlying horrors of these downplayed partnerships, noting a renewal of the ban on automatic weapons that was let “quietly pass” in recent years. They also raise an astute observation: most of the public, their studies illustrate, are centrist. So why is everyone in office seemingly on the far right or left? They blame these corporations and lobbyists, who must push for extreme regulation to achieve their ends. Their influence, the authors argue, is what polarizes the nation.

Though Page and Gilens’s points become repetitive, they emphasize the importance of reforming our political system to match the needs of our time. Reform for less-corrupted elections, they suggest, will require “wealthy sympathizers.” While this seems counterintuitive, leaving room for rich contributors to seize a selfish agenda under the guise of an altruistic contribution, it raises an important question. In a wounded political system, can we transform the poison into medicine? If so, as the authors argue, contributions should come from small and large pockets. While the concept of using “good” money to overpower the “bad” money may be beneficial, the notion that middle-class Americans will start contributing to candidates seems idealistic. First, this would mean enough citizens support candidates to overpower the voices of corporations. With a deepening public mistrust of government, we’d also have to idealize the perfect candidate who could rally millions of Americans to not only advocate for them, but also pay for them. Here, the authors do point at what has worked before in achieving reforms, which could also result in changing the current election system. They note the Public Citizens Lobby, Democracy Matters, Black Lives Matter, and the Occupy Movement to illustrate how our own lobbying can effectively perform on local, state, and federal levels. While this allocates the power back into citizens’ hands, these movements also need money to thrive. If there are enough wealthy contributors who empathize with the struggles of the working middle class, then money can cease to be a primary tool of corruption. But this also raises the question: When will wealthy sympathizers stop sympathizing with their own indulgent causes?

With extremist groups on the rise, a toxic smog of nationalism seems to threaten the oxygen supply of rational citizens. Page and Gilen offer a stark but refreshing sentiment: the United States is not, in fact, the best country on the planet. They offer comparisons to countries like Norway and Sweden, which offer universal health care, and even address a few American states who go against the grain and employ publicly funded, “clean” elections. Those who are fervently patriotic but fed up with income inequality would still find the book palatable.

After laying out a depressing case against our country’s financial misconduct, Page and Gilens provide suggestions for reconstruction. However, this prescriptive section feels truncated, and its substance does not justify its proportional involvement in the title — one is left still unsure “what we can do about it.” Some of their suggestions seem more realistic than others, and some are beyond the power of an ordinary citizen. To encourage voter turnout, they champion the use of vouchers (pre-paid “tickets” citizens use for a candidate of their choice to fund their campaign). They want an Office for Public Lobbying to chart big money influence, and universal registration so citizens would no longer need to take the initiative to register for vote. They also demand the public disclosure of all donor spending, but fail to explain how this could happen.

As for the elections, they encourage runoff ballots, an attractive option after the last election, when many blamed third-party voters for failing to stop Donald Trump. They also toy with the difficult question of getting rid of the much-malinged Electoral College, but even Page and Gilens have their doubts about changing the Constitution, concluding that “only a selfless, far-seeing view of the importance of democracy — aided, perhaps, by pressure from an energetic, multi-state social movement — might persuade the necessary number of state legislatures to act.”

The consistent structure of this book is admirable, but sub-sections tend to abruptly end without a roadmap for improvement. Snapshots of progress are brief, and remain as teasers for the final section, “What Can Be Done.” Unfortunately, Page and Gilens are most remiss in this section. They offer rational solutions, yet never include oppositional arguments to refute inevitable objections. Without acknowledging the other side, some arguments deflate, arousing suspicion in their effectiveness for change.

They also give a perfunctory glance to the Supreme Court, skimming its functions even when this branch could be used in wielding plans for action. After probing the solutions, a reader is still left thinking: How? How do we actually enact change? This book is intended for middle-class citizens, but does little to suggest how they can press for change. Should we ask for grassroots organizations or a distorted version of lobbying? What current organizations are already tackling these issues? The authors give broad accounts of movements in history to guide us in the present, but do little to anticipate success for the future.

The sour tone leaves little room for an emotional call to action. If solemn frustration is enough to kickstart an overhaul of the current political system, then their text could serve as an appropriate plan for action. Otherwise, Page and Gilens would benefit from presenting more nuanced theories on — as the title promises — what we can actually do about it.

Concrete solutions may still be out of reach, but the first step is diagnosing the problem, which Page and Gilens do with success. Democracy in America? includes research that should be a part of ordinary public discourse, but is most likely already ingrained in the minds of avid political readers. For this audience, the text serves as a collection of political research, conveniently tucked into one place. For those less educated in politics, it is an appropriate launchpad to critically examine the role of government, our democratic (and undemocratic) institutions, and the true interests of our American guardians.


Megan Sandberg is a staff writer at Ink Wordsmiths, a marketing agency in Mission Viejo, California.

LARB Contributor

Megan Sandberg is a staff writer at Ink Wordsmiths, a marketing agency in Mission Viejo, California.


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