I aim to approach the question, Is it politics that is causing the heart of the problem in America? Clearly, when the approval of Congress is below 25%, most people think that the first branch of government has some serious structural and/or functional flaws. However, when one looks at the influence of unregulated money in politics, one can see that perhaps it is the great wealth of that 5,000 American movers and shakers who wish to drastically affect the political process in a way that the founders of this country could not have imagined. So, which should we change to make the most, lasting change: reform politics as usual, or prevent the mega-wealthy and powerful from having an outsize influence on politicians?
The Case for Politics As the Pivotal Issue: Everyone seems to agree that the whole political situation is completely out of control. For decades, politicians have been taking corporate money and giving meetings to movers and shakers. The ultimate characterization of this kind of person would be the quintessential “boss”, like Boss Tweed of big city local politics of old. Frankly, much of the GOP is just completely off the rails, and the Democratic National Committee was very offensive to values such as truth, transparency, fairness and legitimacy in the 2016 election vis-a-vis Bernie Sanders. There has been an “establishment” or “business-focused” wing of the party for decades now – call them “centrist Dems” or “Blue Dog Democrats” or the like. They love courting business interests and will, like the Republicans, allow money to influence their every move.
Where I am going with this is simple: the political system is bankrupt, politicians are corrupt more often than not, only weasels run for office and no sane person would run for the Presidency. The government should be downsized and neutered and altered so that it really functions as an advocate for the people. Many folks wanted to elect Trump because they felt it would send a message that the system was broken and needed change desperately. Come what may, burn it down, fuck it all, you name it.
The well-to-do worry that politicians are going to run amok and raise the nominal tax rate above $10,000,000 in income per year to 70%, or that they are going to levy a 2% per year tax on wealth (e.g., assets). Both of these signal to moderates and conservatives that politicians need to be leashed and muzzled and neutralized lest they run up more debt, get involved in more wars, and engage in ethics violations. Of course, the case that Trump has ruined the GOP for at least a generation is plain to see. He took the natural trajectory of the party since probably Newt Gingrich and put rocket fuel in the gas tank.
The Case for Money as the Root of Most Evil: Citizens United, Vallejo, McCutcheon, and a few other Supreme Court cases have allowed infiltration of unregulated, dark, and big money into the political system. This is the source of the issue.
Politicians would be much more responsive to everyday concerns of their constituents if they were not so beholden to “big money” and fat-cat donors such as the Koch Brothers. When someone can form a PAC and contribute mightily to a special interest as part of a campaign (or just simply a ballot measure), things get way out of whack. The founders of the United States could never have predicted that corporations and wealthy individuals (who own as much as 90% of the wealth and participate in the majority of the ownership of the stock market) could have this big an influence on politics. For whatever faults the Democrats have, the Republicans are on the forefront of this effort. Just look to see which SCOTUS justices voted for Citizens United and which ones oppose it. Republicans may have some values they can legitimately claim as their cherished ones – liberty, strength, tradition, etc. – but they cannot say that money is not the heart of the Grand Old Party. Money and socially conservative causes such as abortion and affirmative action are the lifeblood of the Right in America.
So, this is a bit of a “the chicken or the egg” phenomenon in my mind. A clear and convincing case can be made for either side (and typically it is libertarians and other conservatives who make the case that politicians are not a useful and honorable group of folks, and that private enterprise can and will do anything government officials and bureaucrats can do better. By and large, this is not the case in Europe, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and a few others. There, the government has more honor, legitimacy, transparency, and is less beholden to campaign contributions. Perhaps no surprise, they have policies there which tend to make people happier, more secure, and less stressed. Life is simply better in Scandinavia, all things considered. So, it does seem that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that the founders designed the fabric of America, or with the way that government has devolved in the subsequent two centuries.
All parties seem to agree that something is amiss with politicians here, though there is a difference of opinion as to why, and what to do to change it. The question for this essay is, Is this the fundamental factor, the keystone, that keeps dysfunction protracted and persistent. It seems that if we could just get politicians to pass various reforms, we wouldn’t have to go the way of Rome and collapse of our own weight. Why not act more strongly to stop Russia and China from eating our lunch? Why voluntarily shut down the government? Why spend $800 billion more per year than we take in in revenue? Why slash taxes on corporations and the well-to-do in a fairly robust economy? I have always felt that Republicans claim the government is corrupt, inefficient, and useless – then they convince the cynical and disengaged and ignorant voter this is so, or that they have to fear progressivism – and then get elected and engage in an absurd self-fulfilling prophecy!
An alternative point of view, however, is that it is big money that makes the whole political system dysfunction as it does. To use a simile, the political system is like a human body that is forced to consume a cup of sugar a day – unregulated, immoral, and gross amounts of sugar such that the system’s “teeth” rot, the system’s “body” is fat and lazy, and the system’s “brain” is in a diabetic coma.
Thus, according to that point of view, one must alter the calculus by reducing the pernicious effect of huge amounts of money on the system. Some politicians have tried to turn back the asinine SCOTUS decisions that allowed the whole political system to be stretched out beyond recognition. Think of McCain-Feingold, a bill that had the potential to reign in unregulated campaign contributions, but went nowhere. Some say that term limits is the key, but they too have gained little ground.
The problem is, it is politicians who have to vote for their own abatement. There is a truism which notes that power never surrenders itself without a fight. That no politician will virtually ever do anything that is against his or her perceived best interests unless a greater force is applied (e.g., leverage from constituents). Add in a fat, lazy, over-entertained, cynical, burnt out, overworked, undereducated, distracted populace and the needed force never materializes. In the words of Chomsky and Hermann, consent on the part of the governed must be manufactured, and when it is successfully created and manipulated, the forces which in Europe counteract entrenched power of the aristocracy (or which have in times past in this country been more effective) never materialize. People willingly assent to the status quo, almost against their better judgment. Thus, we are in a feedback loop of a very gross and unmanageable kind.
Some would say that politics, surrounded and protected by laws and money and the status quo, will be able to resist change until the people take to the streets in numbers heretofore unprecedented. In such a case, whether politicians will lock themselves in the bowels of the Capitol, or whether Donald Trump would use tear gas and guns to prevent a loss of power, privilege, and control he is obsessed with, I do not know. I do know that we can’t continue on this trajectory forever and remain anything like the empire we once were. If you pray, pray for wisdom. Ω
Here is another blog about politicians and the American political system.