The Compass - America, Laboratory Of Democracy

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02Money: The Lifeblood Of American Democracy20171101

In this four-part series, Gary Gerstle presents the story of how America became the world’s first big democracy.

2/4 The usual way to tell the story of money and democracy in America is in terms of a fall from grace. Once upon a time, democracy was pure, with little corruption, and rich Americans had no influence upon policymakers. The truth is more complicated. By the mid-19th Century, America had the largest, densest, and most labour-intensive democracy in the world. None of this had been anticipated by the country’s founders, who had made no provision in the Constitution for funding an electoral system that, because of its vastness, had become enormously expensive. When government failed, private entrepreneurs rushed in, inventing a new institution - the political party - to organise America’s intricate system of elections.

These entrepreneurs took money wherever they found it - from wealthy individuals who wanted to become judges; from corporations who wanted to influence policy; from those who were expected to pay an “assessment” for the privilege of working for the party or in government. Tammany Hall in New York was the first of these powerful party organisations. We visit the Courthouse that “Boss Tweed” built, and the saloon, McSorley’s, where many Tammany deals were struck.

And we examine the many efforts to reform America’s electoral system, beginning 100 years ago, continuing with the Watergate reforms of the 1970s, and concluding with the efforts by Bernie Sanders and others today to roll back Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that has sent a new avalanche of money cascading into American politics. Separating American democracy from its money, its lifeblood, is as difficult a task today as it was a century ago.

(Photo: Old photographs hang on a wall at McSorley's Old Ale House in the East Village, New York City 2012. The East Village has been home to famous artists, musicians and waves of immigrants from the 19th century on. Credit: Getty Images)