As the 2012 election season was heating up, sophomoric me urged students in Ann Arbor to vote. This idealistic, inexperienced and not unintelligent person expounded on the great privilege we as Americans have to choose who our representatives are in government — blowing it more than slightly out of proportion in the process.

Predictably, this column didn’t achieve its goal of capturing the zeitgeist of what felt like the most significant election in history. But I stand by its message: young people traditionally lack political power in our democratic society, and the outcomes of general elections are one of the primary fronts of that power. Lawmakers and elected officials have a broad and exclusive mandate to make decisions that affect people’s lives. More generally, the best-qualified (and sometimes the least-bad) candidate is not guaranteed to win unless people actually turn out — no matter what Nate Silver predicts on FiveThirtyEight. Therefore, students can gain considerable power through the vote and should capitalize on that opportunity.

This notion was as true last week as it was two years ago. At the same time, the final vote count doesn’t come close to telling the full story of a democratic election. Names on ballots end up there through a combination of political party power and institutional phenomena that present a hefty and arguably overwhelming counterweight to the democratic will.

From its utility as a means for consolidation of personal networks into a candidate support structure, to its status in the public arena to its effectiveness as an infrastructure for raising disgustingly large sums of money, the support of the Democratic or Republican Parties offers candidates a nearly peerless electoral edge. Moreover, the depth of prior connections to these parties itself has a massive role in determining who will benefit from the party apparatus. The race for Michigan’s own 12th District starkly illustrates this fact through the absolute steamrolling that the Democratic candidate and representative-elect, Debbie Dingell, inflicted upon not just her Republican counterpart in the general election, but her challengers in the Democratic primary.

The party’s support for Dingell’s candidacy over every other Democrat in the district was not inevitable. However, it would be ludicrous to suggest her longtime integration into state Democratic circles through prior experience in elected office and personal connection with a successful and well-reputed House Democrat had nothing to do with that outcome. Very few people have partisan connections of that quality, and this situation likely deterred similarly well-qualified Democrats who might have contested her nomination. These factors added up to a formidable electoral edge for Dingell before a single ballot had been cast in her favor.

Factoring in institutional and positional power alongside party power, the power of the vote shrinks even further. Besides his partisan affiliation as a Democrat, outgoing U.S. Senator Carl Levin possessed the electoral advantage of chairing the Senate Armed Services Committee since 2007. That position inevitably lends a megaphone to the one who possesses it — and even more importantly for Michigan voters in 2008 and 2002, Levin was the only person who could offer such deep influence over this country’s armed forces as their representative. This was the result of years of work within the idiosyncratic structure of the Senate, honing Levin’s edge as a candidate with effects similar to those benefiting Dingell.

These two general phenomena aren’t insurmountable. However, they set the groundwork for who can run for political office in a nondemocratic fashion. They do this to such an extent that the vote this year felt like merely a mechanism for expressing general preference, devoid of the personal and symbolic importance I so proudly attributed to it two years ago. Even as the candidates I voted for head off to Washington, D.C. to represent me, incumbents on the whole continue to overwhelmingly keep their seats, and gridlock in Congress seems destined to graduate to a new level of divisiveness. Topping it all off, the Democratic nomination for 2016 has for two years looked like a lock for Hillary Clinton — a candidate whose presence on the scene is likely to drive away the overwhelming majority of others who might have otherwise considered seeking that nomination.

This is, apparently, what American democracy looks like. It’s no longer an inspiring view.

Eric Ferguson can be reached at ericff@umich.

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