Posts Tagged ‘ALEC’
I’ve harped here on the notion, both popular and academic, that ‘talk’ doesn’t matter – that decisions are the key unit of politics, they are action, driven by some set of fundamental forces, unaffected by interactions among people. This is connected to an idea I’ve called democratic efficiency: that public opinion translates automatically into public policy, like a political market (market here being the imagined one of economic theory rather than anything that exists in the real world). This position renders the vast bulk of political activity nonsensical, but it has the handy consequence of ensuring that any outcome is explainable–some set of actors or policies won out because they were favored (probably by the voters), the proof being that said actors or policies won out. It’s circular, of course, yet somehow deeply satisfying.
I was thinking about this while observing the response to the horrific shooting in Newtown. Many liberals took the shooting as license to demand gun control, something that has been verboten for quite some time. (There has also been a good deal of discussion of mental health, which on its own is a good thing but somewhat troubling as an anti-violence strategy, but let’s leave that aside). At the same time, numerous conservatives announced their own support for things like arming teachers.
The Michigan legislature, still held by Republicans, although their House majority was reduced in the recent election, has been rushing through all manner of ALEC-sponsored legislation, including the No Rights At Work law, harsh abortion restrictions, and an emergency manager law that had just been overturned by initiative. (They are being encouraged by billionaires who know their power is at a high point and voters’ at a low one).
In the meantime, at the federal level, after a campaign where both sides accused the other of wanting to cut Medicare, both sides are scheming to cut Medicare–hopefully in a way that ensures that no one takes the blame (i.e. bipartisanship). This is important because such cuts are deeply unpopular among practically all voters, regardless of party or age. Whipping votes is easier among those members of Congress who were defeated or retiring, many of whom have already lined up lucrative post-Congress employment and may just have some interest in mind other than the public’s.
The time between an election and when the next legislature is seated is perhaps the moment of the lowest ebb of democratic accountability, because of the presence of lame duck members, because the public is exhausted from the non-stop, soul-crushing, circus that is the modern election season, and because it is the time when the possibility of citizens angrily voting against them is furthest off. And many politicians seem hell-bent on making the worst of it.
Obviously, the lame duck sessions aren’t the only culprit here. The Republican Party’s lurch to the right has been a product of organizational politics that serve to insulate it from electoral control, and the vast role of money in politics serves to make legislators in both parties dependent on the funders rather than the people (a problem that has gotten worse in recent decades but is not exactly new either–funders have usually set the bounds within which popular politics can operate, as Thomas Ferguson has argued). There are also almost no independent organizational structures that allow regular people to effectively pressure their representatives. There are plenty of other undemocratic practices and rules we need to target together, as part of a larger democracy agenda.
Sill, what possible purpose does the lame duck session serve? Elite Washington loves the lame duck session, because what ever little impact the public has on policy in normal circumstances, they would prefer to operate with even less popular interference.
But if you actually care about democracy, how to you justify it? The answer is clear. You can’t.
No more lame ducks.
A common refrain is that until the problem of money in politics is dealt with, we can’t achieve anything. Often, the focus is on Citizens United*, and the necessity of a constitutional amendment to overturn it. The difficulty here should be obvious – enacting a constitutional amendment is exceedingly difficult, it would require gaining support from plenty of red states in addition to the blue and purple ones, it would require a set of strategies different from those common in campaigns now (i.e. ad driven, because why would big money donors support it), etc. How could this be achieved in a system that is broken? Obviously, one needs a way to improve the situation that can operate within the existing system, or there is no way out. By focusing on a constitutional amendment (without offering a path to get there), we offer people two choices – fatalism, or magic thinking. Neither view is very useful.**
It strikes me the key is to 1) find strategies that rely less on big money, preferably by harnessing the energy of the large majorities of Americans who oppose Citizens United and are concerned about corruption in politics and 2) finding reachable, intermediate goals that could create a path to major change but wouldn’t require it in order to be achieved.
In terms of strategies, face to face interaction is more powerful than advertisements both in getting people to vote and in engaging them to act. This would require building a permanent organizing infrastructure (that is, one that is not created and dismantled around individual campaigns). It would mean relying on volunteers over paid staff. And it will require choosing frames that inspire excitement and support rather than those that poll well with independents. This sort of organizing can’t be limited to elections–when people mobilize to elect candidates and then demobilize when those candidates take office, the policy that results will be a disappointment, as corporate interests and conservatives will continue to fight. It has to include battles over policy and organizing in the workplace as well.
What about the intermediate steps? Well, first corporations can be pressured directly to disclose their spending, and shareholders can pressure corporations not to use their money to advance political causes. (On the latter, remember the recent efforts to pressure corporations to stop supporting ALEC). The rules governing corporations could be changed to require them to get shareholder support in order to engage in electioneering or lobbying. Public funding could be instituted at the state level (as long as they don’t include a trigger where candidates get more spending when they are being outspent the Supreme Court is unlikely to strike it down ,and it’s not clear that these triggers are necessary.) And as an organizing infrastructure is created, it can be used to support candidates who in turn could be pressured not to use media strategies that require large donors.
None of this would be easy, but all of it is easier than a constitutional amendment. Regardless, any approach has to operate within the system.
*I’m not convinced that Citizens United is the problem. The system was fairly broken before that decision. There’s little doubt that in the wake of the decision the amounts of campaign cash skyrocketed. But simply returning to the pre-Citizens United rules would be no solution, and neither would placing spending limits on corporations alone.
**I’m leaving aside the question of disclosure, because I fail to see how 1) it’s possible using existing strategies or 2) why it would matter much. I knew a number of people who worked in the business campaign finance sector in the late 90s. Back then, any conversation about campaign finance ended with their suggestion that the solution was full disclosure. I don’t think it was because they wanted to limit the power of business.
David Dayen has a really good take on how the decision to go forward with a recall in Wisconsin narrowed the possibilities there that’s well worth checking out. A taste:
The populist movement that arose from the uprising could have used every dollar given to a politician or an outside campaign spending group and used it in community-based organizing. We could have seen well-funded nonviolent actions. We could have seen education campaigns, going door to door with a message rather than an ask to support Tom Barrett or whoever else. We could have seen economic boycotts on Walker-supporting businesses. We could have seen more organizing into broad coalitions around the idea of repealing the rights-stripping collective bargaining law. We could have seen an insurgent movement, one that captured the energy of the uprising rather than re-channeled it.