US Senate Elections

Is democracy falling out of favor?

Is anyone listening out there?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Ordinary Americans’ disenchantment with politics is accompanied by ever more expensive and hysterical election campaigns. As a consequence, the beacon of democracy is running the risk of losing its appeal — and contributing to the West’s identity crisis.

  • Facts


    • Only 15 percent of American voters have followed the Senate election campaigns with interest.
    • Many campaigns, rather than painting pictures of a rosy future, center on fear — fear of terrorists, ebola or political opponents.
    • Election spending has surged considerably, making candidates dependent on rich donors.
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Does a European have to be interested in a congressional election in the US that doesn’t even interest Americans? Of course you don’t have to, but you should. In all likelihood, President Barack Obama will have the devil to pay on Tuesday; in all likelihood the Republicans will dominate the Senate. Things like that can happen in a democracy.

But there’s something else that’s worrisome. When the votes are counted and the brutal indoctrination through TV and radio spots has finally come to an end, only a few Americans will celebrate with the winning candidates. Most will be thankful it’s finally over. What the voters were offered these past couple of months was a democracy that could cure you of democracy, and that is a problem that reaches far beyond Washington.

America, as self-centered as it appears at times, is a model, an embodiment of liberal universal ideals, that the West holds up against oppressors and autocrats. But only one thing is exemplary at the moment: people’s displeasure. Only 15 percent of voters have followed the election campaigns with interest. Who can blame them? Most of the candidates limited themselves to stirring up fear: fear of Ebola, fear of terrorists, fear of foreigners, fear of political opponents. The beacon of democracy has lost its radiant glow. The consequences can be seen in many countries. Autocrats are getting a boost; the wave of democracy is ebbing. There is talk of the “West’s identity crisis” and a “democratic recession.”

The financial arms race has driven Democrats and Republicans into the arms of billionaires who dictate their agendas.

America is suffering from a polarization whose symptoms are exacerbated by an overdose of campaign contributions. Ever since the Supreme Court established the equation “money plus politics equals freedom of opinion,” every election has gotten more expensive and hysterical than the last. The financial arms race has driven Democrats and Republicans into the arms of billionaires who dictate their agendas to the candidates and pin them to their positions – after all, being deprived of campaign donations is a political death sentence. The political stalemate in Washington can largely be explained by a system of campaign financing that the political scientist Francis Fukuyama terms “legalized corruption.”

Often politicians are only secondary figures in their own campaigns. The aggressive TV ads are financed by lobby groups. A few name their financers; others disguise them as “charitable organizations” to get around reporting requirements. Since no one has to take responsibility for dirty campaigns, all inhibitions break down.

The more negative the campaign ads are, the greater the vexation of the moderate voter. The result is a democracy without a mainstream center – a leading nation without appeal.

The author is Washington correspondent for Handelsblatt. To contact the

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