If I sold guns, my livelihood would depend on whether a candidate preferred war or peace. I can see why defense contractors are so invested in elections. Only about 53% of Americans voted in the 2012 presidential election; clearly half of the country didn’t feel that their livelihood depended on that election. Coincidentally, roughly half of the country earns less than $50,000 annually, according to American Community Survey data. Ask any of those under $50,000 earners how their most pressing day-to-day issue is being directly confronted in this election and they couldn’t tell you. But they aren’t stupid. Research by Dr. Thomas Hayes shows the voting record of Senators–of both parties–consistently align with the opinions of their wealthy constituents while the opinions of lower-class constituents never appear to influence their voting behavior. The average person is but an afterthought in politics so how much investment and enthusiasm are they supposed to have leading up to elections?
The average person’s reality just isn’t what the political system responds to and that’s not simply opinion, as Dr. Hayes’ research suggests. Relatively speaking, not many people are wealthy; thus elections have become a competition between political parties to create enthusiasm among ordinary people over the crumbs offered them from the political debate table. Pundits scream about how important these elections are and they are not wrong. Not at all. The choice between a healthcare plan which moderately improves access but not necessarily cost or a drug policy that is a bit less punitive versus one that is not can make people’s lives a little better or worse. Even so, the average American doesn’t have a vote that will change their world in the way that war impacts the defense contractor or a regulatory shift on Wall Street impacts a hedge fund manager. There is a difference between a direct hit and being grazed by a bullet. Both matter but they aren’t quite the same.
There are a number of issues which our vote impacts and collectively, they truly shape the day-to-day life of every American. But the collection of “important” but often tangential concerns simply don’t fire up the average voter and yes, this leaves the door open for someone like Donald Trump to speak to people’s pain and fears. To be clear, Trump is dangerous and we must stop him. Still, we should stop pretending that average people have some cherished ballot that can unlock ultimate freedom and prosperity. The evidence simply isn’t there. Every election features a host of issues that could make things marginally better but that won’t ever excite people quite like having a vote that would actually make them wealthy or more wealthy. That is precisely the choice elites have when they vote but expecting people to be that enthusiastic void of similar options is fantasy.
Presidential, senatorial and congressional elections are the playground of the wealthy. It takes millions to run for any of those seats, let’s just be honest. It is hard for people to feel invested when they are not the donors being courted and when their representatives aren’t (empirically) responsive to their opinions. The solution? Everyday people–and especially black folks– should build their own political playgrounds. Members of every local chapter of the NAACP, Urban League, greek organization and church should get together, identify the smallest elected office in their area and make a game of electing a candidate to it. City council, school board and state legislature seats can literally be won with hundreds of votes and not much money. The point is, when people feel that they can make a difference, are invested and see outcomes, apathy fades. Vote to stop insanity in this election but after November 8th, let’s all get together and start building our own playgrounds. That’s how we will begin to see a real political revolution–from the bottom up, not the top down.