What do you say to people that think our U.S. democracy is really a ruse to hide the fact that we're actually controlled by big business and the government doesn't really represent the people? So basically that we might as well be a dictatorship? Claiming that it is easier to control people if they think they choose their leaders and those leaders have control over the issues that concern us. What proof do we have that our voices are represented?
I'll be glad to offer my perspective.
In 2014 two respected political scientists published an article that analyzed the the extent to which Congressional legislation correlated with public opinion. Their findings were so shocking that they made the national news. Below are are links to two articles which describe the findings, which I strongly recommend. Essentially, the authors of the study found that there is hardly any relationship between what the public says it wants and what laws are passed. But there is a huge relationship between what lobbyists and special interests and what laws are passed. Their analysis documents what many Americans have long suspected: that the concerns of average Americans are ignored by elected officials, but the needs of special interests are always satisfied. The frustration of the public to this truth has, in my opinion, contributed to the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (which isn't to equate their positions, only their status as "non-establishment" candidates).
Here are the links:
It's been frequently reported that national politicians spend as much as 1/3 to 1/2 of their time soliciting campaign donations. Those donations come from banks, corporations, and the very wealthy. Candidates need a lot of money because campaigning is expensive, of course. It defies logic, I think, to believe that candidates will do anything in office to upset their donors because, after all, the politician will need them for the next election. Consequently, the priorities of politicians reflect those of their donors, not the voters. And since those donors are primarily corporations, then corporate interests are reflected in public policy. This is not a mere theory. We need only to look around: free trade agreements are good for multinational corporations, but not for American workers. Laws prohibiting the US government from bargaining for better drug prices is good for pharmaceutical companies, not for American patients. Laws permitting unlimited campaign cash are good for corporations who have the money ready to sponsor candidates, but not good for American voters. Legislation granting massive tax breaks are good for corporations - such as General Electric which pays zero income tax - but bad for Americans whose infrastructure is crumbling. In my opinion, it is very evident that the US government is dominated by corporate interests, and the evidence is the laws that are passed - and the laws that are not. Others may disagree, of course. However, the massive political dislocation that is occurring before our eyes this year suggests that this analysis is correct. Otherwise, if people felt that their interests were being represented in the corridors of government, why would "outsiders" have such strong appeal?
Now, I would not say that there is a conspiracy in the sense of active, deliberate collusion - in the sense of secret meetings and a grand secret strategy. However, I certainly think there is a "conspiracy of interests" which work together to enhance the influence of corporations at the expense of the public. That is, corporations know that when they donate massive amounts of money to a campaign, they are essentially buying protection and advancement of their interests - which, again, is clear by the legislative record. And, politicians understand that by accepting large donations they are tacitly pledging to reciprocate the donor's generosity through policy action (or inaction). Lobbyists, special interests, banks, drug companies, political party officials - they understand what's happening, they know their roles and they know the outcome. In a sense, then, it is a conspiracy because they are working together for their separate self-interests. But it's not a conspiracy in the sense of price-fixing, organized crime, etc. That's not to say that the effect is any better.
I don't think that any of this means that America "might as well be a dictatorship" because I think there is still a significant difference between the kind of totalitarianism that the term dictatorship evokes, and the condition of America. (As controversial as Donald Trump is, I think that comparisons to Hitler are inappropriate.) Yet, the way that power operates in America is more insidious than in a dictatorship. In a dictatorship, power is obviously vested in one person, and everyone understand where the law comes from. In the US, power is perceived to be vested in elected leaders, but really it isn't. As such, the US system depends on public ignorance and apathy - which have been present for a long time. The sources of power in the US are hidden and depend on remaining that way, whereas in a dictatorship they are at least obvious.
Having said that, what we're seeing this year is that millions of people are shaking off their apathy and attempting to wrest control of the political system from what they consider to be unresponsive elected officials and the unchecked influence of outside forces, such as corporations. For people who are concerned about the health of American democracy, this "revolt" is encouraging, regardless of what one may think of the particular figureheads, Trump and Sanders.
Again, this is my personal view and others may differ from it. However, I hope that this offers some useful insights and answers your questions, James.