The Corrosion of Money on American Politics
Votes are the currency of democracy. However, as is well known, there is a counter current to votes in the way of money - the American dollar. Indeed, this currency is no longer just American, it is global. Historically, the dollar's counter current to votes has not seriously threatened America's democracy. Today, I believe that it does; it is shaking her to the roots and breaking her foundation. To explain, let me start with some background.
America's forefathers established the United States of America based on freedom and self governance with representatives selected by vote. The vote decided the successful representatives of the people from various geographic areas. Decisions about who would vote and the mechanics of voting was managed by the states. It is little different today, except its now guided by some federal laws that ensure eligible people get to vote.
This is "government of the people, by the people, for the people" to quote Abraham Lincoln, or alternately, and I think better yet "government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people" to quote Theodore Parker who may actually have been the source of Lincoln's quote. Yet only in recent history, are representatives chosen equally by the voting right of each and every American citizen of the age of majority. Standing here now, such equality is obviously fundamental and appropriate. Yet, as Americans know, looking back, the voting formula was at first far from perfect. It fell short; as it was not broadly inclusive. To the contrary, it was exclusive.
The first principle voter segment was free white male landowners; the wealthy class. Excluded were white working men, almost all women, and most people of color. This has of course progressed to the modern day more perfect union. Getting here today though, was a long, difficult and at times bloody struggle for many Americans. Many battles were fought, culminating in a lasting civil peace, if you will, only in the 1960's and 1970's. Gaining finally, at long last, the truly democratic equation of: one person = one vote. I note the Presidential election is complicated by an overlay of the electoral college system. However, this does not change the underlying principles to which I speak of here.
In past centuries, I believe the “exchange rate” in a sense between dollars and votes was prohibitive for individual influence on an election changing scale. This reflected the diffuse nature of the population, the diffusion of money in the system, and the barriers of perhaps a stronger sense of morality, greater respect for the vote and greater transparency. Finally and importantly, the lack of real time and practical distribution channels for reaching and influencing the vote of every person in the nation; influencing either with money, or with ideas.
Today, I think that this exchange rate is no longer prohibitive. It is perhaps affordable principally because of the amazing American wealth and its concentration in so few hands; fuelled by a political duopoly, the Citizens United decision on SuperPAC's, and cutthroat politics that have grown more aggressive each electoral generation, culminating today in what I would call the “Rovian” extreme. Of course, most will know where I've coined that phrase from – the brilliant and inimitable Karl Rove former Senior Adviser to former Pres. George W. Bush. I don't agree with his poltics or objectives, but he is very clever and focused on GOP's power over America.
Now add to that, the loss of transparency, and the present day ability to push political propaganda and personal attacks through the media and through the highly paid self-serving mouths of people like Rush Limbaugh, Bill Hannity, Ann Coulter and others who will say just about anything to build their Party and their following. These are people who will call the spade a heart and the club a diamond. Fuelling this fire, is what I would call the right wing's intentional dumbing down of America, a notable portion of which eats up the right wing shock jock propaganda like reality TV.
This dumbing down is a whole separate article, however, it is happening in the way of affordability, quality, program content, confusion of religion; attempting to change the three r's of reading wrighting and 'rithmatic, to four with the inclusion of relgion. And also, encouraging in the eyes of far too many and critically in the eyes of young people, a disdain for education such as for example by Rick Santorum at Values Voter Summit, as reported by Frank Balsinger at Scholars & Rogues among other sites. Labelling knowledge as "elitist" and by crollary, somehow foreign to America.
I believe the corrosion of voter intentions by money in elections starts fundamentally with the political duopoly: the Republican Party and Democratic Party, in America. Couple that with Rovian extremism. Spike it with political propaganda, from the talking heads on radio and TV, and lately including multiple straight faced smiling Pinocchios from the right wing leaders; and stir it up in an opaque calderon of self-interested money from undisclosed super wealthy individuals and corporations. It is a cocktail that dulls reality from the typical American voter's mind. Perhaps in recent challenging times it is easier to drink this witch's brew; and hiss and spit at each other, than to face America's major troubles head on, as United States, with the common sense and courage needed.
The political duopoly is just that – there are now and perhaps forever may only ever be two parties. This is so because of money in the way of barriers to entry. Principally, these are the time and energy and especially the enormous cost involved in running for office, particularly for the presidency. In recent decades the two parties have hardened and ingrained their political philosophies, particularly the Republicans under former Pres. Bush and Rove. The latter with his outsized motivation to not just win Bush' elections, but also establish a permanent Republican majority to govern for a generation(s). The People's Republican Party? Sounds almost communist, no?
The basic strategy is straightforward. The core idea, still very much in force on the right today, is to develop and maintain a loyal party base. People whose first allegiance is to the Party, at least when voting. This is accomplished by a combination of heavy propaganda for Republican principles and against Democratic principles – real, imagined and even manufactured. As per the Rovian formula, add in "wedge issues" such as abortion, gay marriage, aspects of immigration, and, to some degree national security. Maybe a few wild cards like birth certificates and patriotism. Plus aggressive viscous personal attacks; taking you down on what are actually your strengths. Sound familiar?
Now, on top of this is a second core idea. It is the simple math that power in America can be had with 50% of the voting population +1 vote. With only two parties, half should not be too hard, and you can look to divide rather than unite! Talk about leverage! Never mind that this math scratches that good word "all" from "all the people" of whom Theodore Parker spoke. To me there can be little doubt that Abraham Lincoln intended it be “all” and if not, then he was certainly nowhere near doing Rove's calculation. Now, why are Republicans so good at this math when, as Pres. William (Bill) Clinton mentioned the other day, they don't seem to get it on deficits and debt; but I digress.
This “all of the people” is fundamentally the root of democracy. I note in passing that democracy was invented in Greece. Delicious irony, no? Given the right wing's love for that country. Plus, a further plank of strategy that I call "anti-democracy". It is a democracy limiting strategy, intended as part of the right's broad effort to obstruct and exploit, some of which columnist Paul Krugmam well explains. This is basically jamming a wrench in the unintended loophole in America's “three branch” check and balance governing system of Executive, Courts and Congress.
The wrench? You know - filibustering and blocking legislation and government appointees and what have you. Sounds like football or hockey, but actually its a blood sport – and its your blood! Of course, somehow, I don't think it was meant to grind things to a halt; particularly not at times of crisis. Just give pause for due consideration. And when this was conceived principally by those on the right and advanced by Rove, it was never meant to be reciprocated by the left! The gaul of them to follow!
The American government must represent all of the American people. How could it be otherwise? The system divined by the founders intends a simple majority vote carry the day on most matters. Only special matters need two thirds or three fifths super majority including changing the constitution for example. However, the casualty of this blood sport is a negation of the will of the majority, in favor of the will of the 50% +1, and arguably even less. This to me is what people like Congressman John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, have come to represent. Leaders in this blood sport. To be fair and clear, Mr. Rove didn't start all this, but rather he brought it to its logical ugly conclusion. And so here we are!
So today, things have really changed and I believe any objective assessment of the spectrum of money in politics by an honest person, would conclude that it is possible to effectively "buy" those votes. I say effectively because it is not a direct, illegal exchange. I think elections can be so heavily influenced by those with the most money, that if Americans are not watching carefully, they effectively vote based on false premises and false principles and against each other rather than for America.
Each party holding different, and where possible, diametrically opposed ideology, interests, platforms, and policies. Through this division, what is left is focusing money and energy simply vying for a small difference in votes. Using the spades and the clubs mostly, to get those votes. So money in the system and politics too clever by half are resulting in policies that are burying and hurting Americans, rather than winning their hearts and producing diamonds for America.
The most significant point is that money is increasingly concentrating in fewer hands. This absolutely is fact. These people, by this concentration, grow both more powerful and also more divergent personal interests, compared to the American people at large. I won't bore you with statistics here, we are all familiar with the extent of this concentration. A low single digit percentage have the super majority of wealth and income. I will though, point you here to this relatively simple set of explanatory graphs from Michael Snyder on Business Insider.
I mentioned earlier the global nature of the US greenback. In addition, of course, US trade is global as are many American based corporations. The scale of these beyond American boarders businesses are impressive, larger than some good size countries. They are entities unto themselves, beyond democracies and other forms of local governments. And money generally has the propensity to go global to where it is least scrutinized, least taxed, and least controlled. Money is not patriotic. It is not moral, or amoral I suppose either. I don't think it is Christian of Muslim either, but again, I digress... It is just a current of power flowing into the hands of fewer and fewer owner(s).
In terms of individuals, the concentration of American wealth is in the hands of perhaps several hundreds and at most a few thousand. People such as Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers among others. Add to that, the control of instantaneous, far reaching media by some of these self same people. The power of the monied to target blocks of people and manage perceptions on that scale, has been here for a while. Started with radio; now the internet and TV. This of course helps drive the language and propaganda of the parties and the campaigns too. For the typical voters, if they hear the same thing coming from multiple sources, it seems it must be true, even if it is not.
So with the advent of SuperPAC's and the incredible cost of running for office, these wealthy few and special interest corporations are well positioned. They are able to materially influence who is the candidate as well as who wins elections. In this, there is a clear and present danger. Any candidate who wins like this is beholden to their benefactor(s). That candidate is conflicted away from American's interests.
Pres. Obama to me stands out as one who built his support as much as possible from all the people. We know he works on a grass-roots level to gain funding and votes. I believe he is looking to govern for all the people, as intended. I think in his improbable rise to his office, he is a principled, intelligent man, focused on executing the Presidency in a way befitting all the American people. I cite here an article by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair that is inciteful and fits with what glimpses we see of Pres. Obama. This past election cycle, he has had, as a matter of necessity, to work with the SuperPacs to bolster his fund raising. The other side was unrelenting.
On the other hand, I believe it is not too far out to use a Bain & Co. analogy for Governor Romney's situation. If he were elected, what we might have witnessed was a highly leveraged reverse take over of America's White House. His SuperPACs are well funded by anonymous and mostly silent donors and donations. Should Gov. Romney have won the White House, the people who largely put him there wouldn't view their money as a donation though; its an investment, thank you very much! So America could have expected the billions paid in, to be subject to a notional first mortgage.
Money can be found in all the cracks and crevices of the political system. From earmarks and pork barrelling in general, to earmarks for those bridges to nowhere, from lobbyists for those earmarks, to the oddly higher percentage of wealthy people in Congress, compared to the population at large. Another whole arena of money in politics is the American debt, deficit and the management of its Treasury. All of them politcised, and weaponized in today's politics. This is a right wing strategy, the earlier mentioned Congressional trio at the heart of much of the damaging things being done with this at the expense of Americans at large. I will leave all these to another day.
Karl Rove's American Crossroads GPS, the SuperPAC, was aptly named for this just passed election. America indeed faced a Crossroads. She made perhaps one of the greatest decisions of her life. She chose the path to a full across the board American recovery and I think also to reinforce the roots of her democracy. I think she needs to work now to raise the exchange rate between money and votes, and reduce corrosion of the political system. She has eschewed the path of a leveraged reverse take over of the White House. Said no thanks to that little bit of promised trickle down "cash back", and a notional mortgage on your American Dream.
Pres. Obama mentioned at the DNC the words Hope and Change. He said, you are the change. The American people. I too believe it is you who powers change. You still have that power. You used it to give him a mandate for real change that you can believe in during this past election.
Yet, as in any democracy, he still needs your voice and your help to follow through.