The other day, I read a comment thread discussing the Republican nomination system. It's admittedly very complicated, which led some of the commenters to feel that it was secret and being hidden from them. In particular, they felt the mechanism of the "brokered convention" was unfair. This is what happens if no candidate gets a majority of delegates. At the convention, the delegates are "unbound" after the first ballot to vote for other candidates than the one they were originally bound to vote for. That way, the convention can reach a true majority for a single candidate, as the delegates for less-popular candidates group around one with a better chance for winning.
What this means is that if Donald Trump gets 40% of the delegates, and Cruz and Kasich each get 30%, on subsequent ballots, Kasich's supporters can switch their vote to Cruz (or vice versa) so that the 60% of people who don't want Trump can get not Trump.
Unfortunately, the people in this thread felt that this was a failure of democracy. It was proof that party insiders could ignore the will of the people (after all, more of them appear to want Trump than any other single candidate) and just pick whoever they want. It just shows that they weren't paying attention back in 2012, when this very strategy was the hope of Ron Paul supporters to overthrow the establishment. All they needed was to keep Romney from getting a majority, and then all the delegates would group around Ron Paul.
How could they do that? Well, by making sure the actual people who went as delegates were Ron Paul supporters, even if bound to some other candidate. How to be a delegate varies from state to state, but in all cases, these people are chosen by the local members of the party. All you have to do, then, is register as a GOP member, get the support of other members, and get elected as a delegate. And you have to be willing to travel to the GOP convention in the summer. And, most of all, you have to have enough people backing you to get what you want. That's the real reason Ron Paul failed. It's not because the system stopped the people from getting what they wanted. It's that more of the people wanted Romney than anybody else.
When I read this comment thread, I was filled with a sense of sympathy. I remember feeling that way, feeling like the system was rigged against me, feeling that no matter how hard I tried or what I did, some mysterious group of elites would always do what they wanted anyway. I felt that the people had no real power, that democracy was just for show. Sometimes I even wondered if there was a vast conspiracy behind everything -- government in cahoots with economic and cultural elites to seize all the power and money in the country and make sure no ordinary people got any.
But there are things that don't jive with this viewpoint. For one thing, the economic elites don't usually agree with the cultural elites -- that's why the left demonizes "the 1%" while the right demonizes The New York Times and Harvard. And of course there are rich mogols on the left (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) and conservatives do have influence on the media and education (Rush Limbaugh, prayer in schools). If Gates gives a ton of money to the Democratic candidate and Koch gives a bundle to the Republican candidate, don't they wind up canceling out?
Of course, there are some things that do operate like I imagined. Our food system and the Federal Reserve are two I can think of where certain special interests have a disproportionate level of influence. In both cases, it's because most people don't know or care what's going on, while those most affected by them (Big Ag, Wall Street) know all about them and spend all the efforts on influencing them. But in most cases, the government is too incompetent to control everything the way I thought, and most politicians aren't really as clever and evil as on House of Cards.
Then why don't we get what we want? Well, sometimes we do get what we want. When everyone in the country agrees on something, it's pretty uncontroversial and it just gets done without fuss. But on most topics, either we disagree entirely on the end goal (some people want there to be gay marriage, and some don't) or we disagree on the means (we all want to end poverty, but some of us think we can do it with more welfare and some think what we need is lower taxes and less regulation). In each of these cases, a maximum of one side can get what it wants. More often, nobody gets what they want. Some of us wanted socialized healthcare, some wanted free-market healthcare, so we got Obamacare, which we all agree is awful. Some want to deport all illegal immigrants, others want to give them all amnesty, so we do neither and the problem of millions of undocumented workers, which we all agree is a problem, steadily gets worse. This problem is compounded when a problem has multiple possible solutions instead of only two. If there are five different ways to cure poverty, and each is only favored by 20% of people, of course we're not going to make a whole lot of progress.
Now, it's not as bad as all that. I happen to be of the opinion that America in 2016 is a great place to live. Sure, it's not perfect, and you all know I have a sentimental attachment to medieval Europe which makes me a little dissatisfied with the modern world. But crime is falling, even the poor aren't usually starving, we've wiped out smallpox, and we have Wikipedia on our phones. Unemployment is higher than I'd like, but not Depression-level bad, and it's slowly getting better. Certainly there's a lot that should be done, but I don't believe that the sky is falling.
And insofar as there are problems, many of them could be solved with a little more effort. I mean, our founding fathers pledged their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor to change their political situation to one they preferred. The average modern American thinks he's a hero if he shows up to vote and does nothing else. I'm not denigrating voting, but voting isn't the only thing or the most effective thing you can do politically. You could try to influence other people's votes -- that has a surprisingly large effect. For instance, you could volunteer for a phone bank or to knock on doors for a candidate or ballot measure you support. Money makes a difference, and it doesn't have to be given by Wall Street. Sanders is doing quite well fundraising mainly from individuals. Or you could try to influence your representatives by calling them when an important vote is coming up in the legislature. I've done that several times, since I found out legislators really do listen to that sort of thing. Of course that requires you to keep up on what's going on, instead of only paying attention to what the government is doing once every four years.
If you're interested in doing more, you could join a political party. You then have the chance to push forward that party's goals within the country -- and to push forward your goals within the party. You can find party members who agree with you on key issues and strategize to bring those issues forward. You might even run for office. While there are loads of people who'd like to be president, there are surprisingly few who are willing to do the thankless work of local and state politics, and there are plenty of people who'd like to vote for a trustworthy person if one would ever run.
While I think that working within a party is probably your most effective route to pursue change, if you don't like those, there are also political advocacy groups you could join. Sure, Monsanto has a big lobby, but real food also has lobbying groups. In order to compete with the corporate lobbies, these groups need money and volunteers. If you haven't given them any money and you haven't volunteered, you can't expect them to get results for you.
These are just a few of the ways you can make a difference beyond just voting. I list them because they are things most people don't do, which you can have a disproportionate level of influence if you do. No one is stopping you from having a say in how the country is run -- except you.
Of course it's a heck of a lot easier to say "the system is broken," because then you're completely absolved from getting off your butt and doing something. If the system is broken, you can whine about it in internet comboxes and fantasize about the government coming to get you or the coming apocalypse. I know how that feels because I've been there. The reality is more mundane: the machine works, but you're asleep at the wheel. You go and vote, and then if you don't get what you want, you whine that the system is rigged against you and you never could have won. But what if you could have won, if you'd done more?
There is no system for organizing human beings that runs smoothly with no effort from anyone. Democracy is no exception. Left to itself, it tends toward either oligarchy or demagogues. But it doesn't have to be left to itself. It can be influenced by the hard work of individuals like you. Or, if you do nothing, it will be influenced by people looking for money or power who are willing to harm the rest of us to get it. It's a free country -- the choice is up to you.