LibLink: Shirley Williams: American democracy is up for sale and it’s a warning to us all

Shirley Williams has been writing for the Independent about the pernicious influence of big money in politics in the US. She writes about the huge amounts of money being poured into Republican campaigns, how this clearly gives them advantages in access to the voters through the media. More worryingly, she outlines what appears to be a strategic approach of using the courts to abolish funding limits and of gerrymandering congressional districts to again give themselves an advantage at the expense of others.

She gives a very stark warning about why this is a bad thing. We need to think that we have a realistic chance of getting rid of our government if we don’t like them. A politics where you have to have the backing of the stinking rich to succeed is not exactly likely to benefit all and will lead to disillusionment:

Negative campaigning has badly affected voter turnout in the United States, as has the sense that money determines election outcomes. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the most expensive ever, voter turnout was the lowest for seven decades at 36.3 per cent nationwide. In 12 states – including New York, California and Texas – not even a third of the electorate bothered to vote. Cynicism and apathy are killing democracy.

It is imperative in a democracy that those opposed to the government of the day can cherish the prospect of peacefully changing its leaders and its policies. Otherwise the alternatives are some form of violent action, a revolution or a coup.

She praises the UK system of giving special status to the Opposition and the British obligation to ensure balanced coverage, at least during an election period. However, with big money becoming as important here and the Conservatives’ ability to outspend all-comers, politics is a pretty scary prospect at the moment. Few watch the very worthy political programmes on the BBC. Most people will see billboards everywhere showing Alex Salmond picking your pocket.

The article is pretty shocking in outlining what should be seen as outrageous abuses of a democratic system;

Republicans have waged a successful campaign to improve their position at the Congressional level too. In many states, turnout in such elections is low and a well-organised and funded campaign can carry the day. In the US, the boundaries of Congressional districts are determined by state legislatures, not by an independent boundaries commission. In some states, boundaries have been gerrymandered to determine the outcome. For example, concentrating the votes of African Americans or Hispanic Americans in a few districts, to render others marginal. It is an activity in which both major parties engage, but once the boundaries have been agreed by the legislature, changing the political complexion of the state can become very difficult indeed. One political analyst told me that winning a majority in Congress was now close to impossible for the Democrats.

You can read Shirley’s article here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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14 Comments

  • It’s not just Republicans in America. The release of emails from Cherie Blair to Hilary Clinton asking for a meeting with the Crown Prince of Qatar (future venue for the FIFA World Cup) is no great surprise.
    “Hillary Clinton emails: Cherie Blair lobbied for Qatari crown prince” ‘The Guardian’‎ – 1 day ago.

    As for the cost of a Liberal Democrat Peerage or a knighthood for a food industry lobbyist pal of our late lamented leader …..just don’t go there.

    Maybe wise not to mention Donald Trump in Aberdeenshire either.

  • Both countries share a similar problem: those with money finding ways to get around legal limits. In America, there are still quite strict limits on what individuals can donate to candidates, so people get around that by giving to groups that support certain candidates but are not run by them. Donations to these are not limited. In Britain, a party can spend vast sums targeting voters in specific seats but provided they word their material in a certain way it doesn’t count towards the expenses of their candidate in that seat. The law needs tightening, but of course the party with the richest donors is in power so the law won’t get tightened… well, the law will get tightened, but only with regard to donations from trade unions to the Labour party.

  • Paul In Wokingham 2nd Sep '15 - 6:52pm

    For those who follow US politics this is not news. On the contrary, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has highlighted the pernicious influence of “big money” through super PACs and the consequences of the “citizens’ united” supreme court ruling.

    https://berniesanders.com/issues/money-in-politics/

    As Bernie points out – the fact that one family – the Koch brothers – can shovel $900 million to Republican candidates in 2016 makes a laughing stock of the very concept of democracy.

  • @David Raw: “As for the cost of a Liberal Democrat Peerage or a knighthood for a food industry lobbyist pal of our late lamented leader …..just don’t go there.”

    Exactly, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    If the Lib Dems have the level of principles that they pretend to have they would refuse seats in the Lord like the SNP do, then it would have to be reformed with only two parties playing a part in it.

    It’s like Orwellian double think, just like “moderate radical” and all the other nonsense that this party comes up with.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Sep '15 - 8:04pm

    David Raw 2nd Sep ’15 – 3:57pm Donald Trump has been saying that because he is very rich he does not need to fundraise. He criticises others who take one day off after polling day and then go back to fundraising, not legislating.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Sep '15 - 8:08pm

    One definition of a democracy includes the line that 50% of adults can vote and actually do.

  • The Labour Party in Southampton Itchen raised £150,000 for the 2015 general election and still lost the seat on a 62% turnout. I suspect that we spent similar sums in unsuccessfully fighting some of our seats. Coming from a period in history when we pasted up canvass cards on cardboard boxes scrounged from the back of supermarkets at a parliamentary by election (at which we increased our vote to 15% – 10% more than we polled this year) I find it distasteful and even alienating that it seems to be deemed necessary to spend such vast sums of money to motivate people to vote in crucial seats.

  • John Tilley 2nd Sep '15 - 9:34pm

    Paul In Wokingham 2nd Sep ’15 – 6:52pm
    For those who follow US politics this is not news. On the contrary, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has highlighted the pernicious influence of “big money” through super PACs and the consequences of the “citizens’ united” supreme court ruling.

    Quite right Paul. (BTW –I have checked out Bernie Sanders since you recommended him here in LDV. Seems like a good man. ). This is far from a new issue in the USA. It has been smouldering away since the early 1970s and Watergate and Nixon’s highly dubious CREEP cash.

    Mire recety Shirley Williams may recall The Wellstone Amendment.
    It was named after the wonderful Liberal Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone
    (from what he described as “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party”).
    He campaigned on this issue in the 1990s and up until his death in an air crash in 2002.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Wellstone

    Politicians in the UK could have learned the lessons and reformed party funding in this country as we were promised in The Coaition Agreement. Yet another of those things that party members who supported the Coalition at the beginning thought they were going to get because it was there in back and white. I bet all the books by former junior ministers will not say much about why we did not get reform.

  • John Tilley 2nd Sep '15 - 9:48pm

    In her article Shirley Williams wrote —
    “..One of the constitutional subtleties of the UK has been the official status given to the main opposition party and its leader within Parliament – a status recognised by the only body permitted to broadcast political campaign material during a general election, the BBC.”

    I expect Shirley was extremely busy during the 2015 and did not have much time to watch BBC TV coverage. My movements were more than a bit restricted in April and May this year so I watched more TV coverage of the election Han I have ever done before. If Shirley has been told that the BBC provided balanced and neutral coverage of the election I suggest she gets some new advisors. Following their disgracefully biased coverage of the Scotland Referendum a few months earlier the BBC continued to exaggerate scare stories about the dreadful dangers of the break up of the UK. No wonder people in Scotland shifted in droves to the SNP. Voters north of the border were probaly a bit fed up with newspaper millionaires and TV Toffs in London telling Scotland what it must do.

    As for the official opposition being treated so magnificently by the BBC during the election. I suggest Shirley asks one of her researchers to watch the coverage again and just count the number of times the words “bacon sandwich” were used on BBC TV and Radio in 2015.

  • ‘A food industry lobbyist pal of our late lamented leader’. If David Raw means Ian Wright, Ian was National Organiser of the SDP before the Liberal-SDP merger, Press Officer to Paddy Ashdown post-merger, and has been a committed supporter of the Lib Dems ever since.

  • John Tilley 2nd Sep ’15 – 9:48pm . If Shirley has been told that the BBC provided balanced and neutral coverage of the election I suggest she gets some new advisors………….As for the official opposition being treated so magnificently by the BBC during the election. I suggest Shirley asks one of her researchers to watch the coverage again and just count the number of times the words “bacon sandwich” were used on BBC TV and Radio in 2015

    Perhaps Shirley would like to explain how, “A day with David Cameron” was the lead story on the flagship 6pm news just days before the election?

  • Richard Underhill 4th Sep '15 - 6:34pm

    John Tilley 2nd Sep ’15 – 9:34pm Did you mean the Committee to RE-Elect the President? CREEP?
    As the man himself said ” The American people need to know that their President is not a crook”,
    following which he resigned.
    The youth wing of his party campaigned at their convention with the slogans
    “He’s tanned, rested and ready, Nixon for ’88!”

  • David Allen 6th Sep '15 - 11:12pm

    “with big money becoming as important here and the Conservatives’ ability to outspend all-comers, politics is a pretty scary prospect at the moment.”

    Politics, on both sides of the pond, is becoming simpler. You are either with the kleptocrats, or you are against the kleptocrats. Clegg was with them. Blair was with them. Cooper, Burnham and Kendall did not stand against them. That is why the voters will prefer Corbyn, despite his failings. We have also chosen a leader with a good record of opposition to the kleptocrats, and we need to encourage him to stick with it.

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