Posts Tagged ‘Citizens United’
I’ve written here before about an idea I call ‘democratic efficiency‘: the belief that one can infer popular beliefs from institutional outcomes because aggregated individual choices are manifested in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy. That means that whatever the public believes will (absent some interference in the normal functioning of our political system) automatically be translated into policy, because of competitive electoral incentives between he two major parties. Recent research has provided even more evidence that this is not a useful way to talk about the world. The piece that has generated the most discussion has been Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (pdf) that tested different explanations for American politics. While the authors don’t actually come to this conclusion, the general take away has been that this piece demonstrates that the United States is an oligarchy.
Politics isn’t hard. Here Robert Reich, as he often does, boils things down to their essence.
One of the best parts of this is that Reich doesn’t let conservatives define themselves, or attack them for failing to live up to supposed conservative principles. He connects our history, or the better parts of it, with our future. He offers a narrative of American and conservatives that makes sense of where we are and were we need to go.
I only have one objection. Number four is treating corporations as people and money as speech under the First Amendment, “thereby inundating our democracy with campaign money from billionaires and big corporations and Wall Street so the rest of us cannot be heard”. I’ve objected to this formulation before. First, it places all the responsibility on the Supreme Court for a situation also caused by Congress, campaign consultants, the media and candidates. Second, it wrongly suggests the solution is “less speech” not increasing the opportunity for the excluded voices to be heard.* And third it suggests that the only way to address it is a constitutional amendment.
I’d say the issue here is a system that is corrupt. It forces candidates to spend all their time fundraising while those with the most money are guaranteed to be heard by public officials while the issues the rest of us care about are kept off the agenda. People-powered campaigns are the first step to solving this problem as well as demanding that corporations be transparent about their spending (both campaign and lobbying, which is left out of the money=speech framework) and require shareholders to approve them. We could also work to ensure institutional investors are committed to voting no (and to limiting CEO pay, golden parachutes and bonuses).
*As long as there is no trigger mechanism where candidates get more funding when the other side spends more, this poses no problem as far as the Court is concerned.
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.