Posted 5/6/14 at www.commonsensecure.com
On issue after issue, public debate continuously focuses on symptoms of the root problem – systemic corruption caused by money in politics – with these symptoms always skillfully re-cast as the actual problem. Political elites, abetted by the media, use clever half-truths to distort perception and inflame voters, effectively distracting us from the fact that most of our problems are rooted in the systemic corruption engulfing our government.
Whether it be the economy, education, health-care or any other major issue; the root problem is how money distorts policy time and again, and then ensures that all subsequent “debate” about policy failures stay within an acceptable framework. Absent this influence, lawmakers would be free to choose the best course of action without worrying about deep-pocketed special interests blocking any and all solutions not favorable to their own narrow interests.
So how do they keep getting away with it? For starters, because most voters align themselves with one of the two major political parties, self-interested politicians and the media have little trouble in establishing the framework of debate for just about every issue of importance. The two parties craft opposing narratives, which dominate the direction of debate to the point of virtually excluding all other viewpoints. Finally, they demonize their opponents to win elections, while spouting self-serving half-truths which resonate with voters because there is always at least a kernel of truth wrapped up somewhere inside the lies and distortions.
By the time they’re done, even in cases where both sides’ arguments have genuine merit about an issue, agreement is still unlikely because we’ve been conditioned to devalue the views of political opposition as the sad babblings of demented and misinformed cretins.
The end result is stalemate and dysfunction, and a political system which doesn’t work for anyone but the moneyed interests.
A better system would yield better results, but you never hear that viewpoint in the media, and that too is by design. Those currently pulling the strings in government and media are not interested in people imagining how high we could soar unencumbered by the systemic corruption constantly weighing us down. They know this is the fuel which could ignite a movement, and they will forestall that at all costs.
Ending systemic corruption is a powerful idea with the potential to unite multiple political factions, but only if it is uncoupled from the current partisan debate and treated as the uniting issue it is. Just as lawmakers bristle at the notion that they are personally corrupt – all while taking part in perpetuating a systemic corruption far more harmful than any one (or ten) corrupt congressperson could ever hope to be – so too will voters bristle if asked to admit they’ve been wrong about closely-held beliefs. The easier it is made for voters to unite against corruption without having to examine their viewpoints on any particular issue too closely, the greater the chance of success.
Better to simply ask voters to look at issues from a perspective of root problem vs. symptom and then talk about issues in that context. Focus on how special interests limit the overall scope of debate and leave us endlessly arguing over the symptoms caused by their corruption. Finally, give voters a way to end systemic corruption via pro-reform candidates who don’t require them to invalidate their opinions and feelings as a condition of support.
But before voters can be asked to end the corruption and its toxic fallout, they must first recognize how most of the noise generated by politicians and the media is meant primarily to divide and distract. Real change will only come once people understand that the problems we face are mostly byproducts of a broken system. Until we end the corruption infesting our politics, nothing will change, things will not get better, and the debates in which we engage will remain full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.
Originally published 4/24/14 at www.commonsensecure.com
Led by high-profile reformer Lawrence Lessig, the New Hampshire Rebellion is a grassroots effort to elevate the issue-profile of systemic corruption in government to a level of importance so high that it influences voting outcomes. Simultaneously, it seeks to ensure that voters will have the ability to vote on the issue by supporting genuine reform-minded candidates culled from both major political parties.
This is a well-organized effort very similar in strategy to the Common Sense Cure, and it meets most of the requirements I have laid out in the past for a reform effort to be successful. Given the infrastructure and support it already has in place, it is thereby an easy decision to wholeheartedly support this effort!
To that end, I want to articulate my concern that the NH Rebellion’s approach to the actual shape of reform – one of the main areas where our strategies diverge – could have unintended negative consequences should it succeed in 2016, and offer a suggestion for avoiding this potential pitfall.
By asking open-ended questions of candidates in order to foster a national conversation on reform, the NH Rebellion unfortunately largely ignores the reality of today’s political and media climate.
Up to this point, those who stand opposed to reform have mostly kept silent on the issue because they’re winning so handily in the courts with only minor public backlash. Currently, any public response would only highlight the issue in the media, and they don’t want that.
However, we would be foolish to believe that moneyed interests haven’t given any thought to what they might do should the day arrive where a more hands-on approach is necessary. Were reform able to gain the increased exposure and media attention so long sought-after, with this victory would also come the sort of negative and misleading spin the issue has largely avoided up to this point.
~ Is it so hard to imagine what will happen once Fox News seizes on a preferred reform solution which they can sell to their audience, but which would be either purposely ineffective or anathema to liberals?
~ Is it so hard to imagine progressives in turn attaching themselves to a preferred solution which conservatives oppose, and suddenly there aren’t enough people in the middle willing to compromise?
~ Is it so hard to imagine that any reform legislation which might emerge from this environment would be somewhat less than ideal?
In theory, asking open-ended questions should lead to the sort of compromise solutions able to pass muster with those across the political spectrum and satisfy reformers on both sides of the aisle. What is far more likely to occur though, is that the media and political elites spin this issue around & around until it is just another partisan distraction upon which we cannot agree. Any “reform” emerging from that conversation would – at best – nibble at the edges of the problem, but leave giant-sized loopholes through which influence could still be bought.
Do we want to have a public conversation on the issue which spans the political divide? Absolutely!
Do we want to allow political elites and big media to dominate that conversation, and for any enacted reforms to be drawn solely from the framework those entities would construct? No, not so much.
The NH Rebellion can succeed in 2016 by raising the profile of the issue of systemic corruption, and turn it into an issue which influences how voters actually cast their ballot. This is no small achievement, but can be easily undone if there is no plan to follow through with genuine reform which actually fixes the problem. Failure to do so would invite the sort of ineffective “reform” the powers-that-be would foist upon us if given half a chance.
The reality is that there is no easy solution to this problem. The moneyed interests benefiting from the status quo are not going to just surrender their power without a fight, and they control many of the means for amplifying a message which candidates and reformers might employ. Were the NH Rebellion able to use grassroots support to elevate the issue of corruption to the point where it could no longer be ignored, opponents of reform will attempt to spin the issue until voters are dizzy, confused and unwilling to act. Asking open-ended questions and leaving the actual job of reform to self-interested politicians will only make their job that much easier.
So while there is no sure solution, reformers can make it much more difficult to spin the issue later by communicating with people about this dynamic early and often. Establish with voters the need to distinguish between real reform and the sort of self-serving “reform” which gets concocted in the pressure cooker of a systemically corrupt government and aided by its accomplices in the media.
The sooner people start hearing during the grassroots portion of the campaign about legitimate policy solutions and what a compromise solution might actually entail, the more able they will be to distinguish the good from the bad when the beast awakens. Of course, plenty of people will still be fooled by the spin, but the more people who can be inoculated now, the easier this will be to combat in the future.
Guarding against unreasonable expectations is another step reformers could and should take now to pre-emptively combat future attempts to divide voters into traditional left-right voting blocks on this issue. Getting voters to cross party lines at the voting booth to enact reform is no small feat, and it will be nearly impossible if most everyone nurtures a false assumption that their preferred solution is the one which will ultimately be enacted.
Sure, it sounds great that polls show overwhelming opposition to the Citizens United & McCutcheon decisions across all parties and political affiliations, and that a majority of the same think that reform is necessary. But let’s not be naïve and think for a second that we’re all thinking the exact same thing when we’re answering that question.
One person’s desire for an amendment to overturn Citizens United could be another person’s desire to do away entirely with limits, but increase transparency. Another person’s desire to enact public financing of campaigns could be another person thinking that strict term-limits are the way to go. And on and on it goes.
If there is an early and persistent focus on shaping the parameters of reform, and the debate surrounding it, people will have a more realistic expectation of what would constitute a positive outcome. The focus should be on compromise and non-partisan reforms which seek to satisfy multiple factions rather than allow every random idea to float around with equal merit. If the framework of debate isn’t managed by reformers, voters will become confused and disillusioned as moneyed interests gleefully rush into the void.
This must, must, must begin by reinforcing the message that all ideas are welcome, but
this issue is too important to be left to Congress’s self-interested, sausage-making scissorhands.
Do these things now, and control of the framework of debate cannot be wrested away so easily in the future by those looking to complicate and confuse the issue. If we fail in this, voters will be left with an unreasonable expectation of reform and, unable to recognize the opportunity they’ve been given, will surely fail to seize it. On the other hand, properly framing the debate from the beginning gives voters the opportunity to adapt their expectations long before being asked to vote on any actual reform solution; greatly enhancing that reform’s likelihood of success in the end.
Perhaps I am wrong and public opinion will force government to reform itself in a real and meaningful manner with a successful election outcome in 2016. However, given recent history and the amount of money & power at stake, it’s probably best not to put all of our eggs in that particular basket.
None of this is meant to say the NH Rebellion is a bad idea or needs to be radically overhauled. 2016 is a presidential election cycle, and the vast majority of oxygen in the media is reserved for that race. Punching through that paradigm in any way, shape or form would be a triumph, regardless of the media response. However, that dynamic changes when the election is over, and having an easy-to-understand and marketable plan for reform in place at that point is a critical step which must not be overlooked.
Use the NH Rebellion in 2016 to change the conversation and elevate to power candidates who will keep the issue of systemic corruption front & center in the national conversation via achievable piecemeal reforms. Then, in 2018, when a much smaller percentage of the electorate can affect change in an off-year election cycle, work to enact a specific all-encompassing reform which would have a profound and sustained impact on making our government responsive to voters, and not just moneyed interests.
Whether it is the Common Sense Cure, The Anti-Corruption Act or the Lessig Super Awesome Plan, there must be an easily identified reform which binds together the best ideas from across the political spectrum in one eminently brand-able title. This solution should be crafted to achieve both the level of necessary political support and to actually make a significant difference on the ability of moneyed interests to influence government policy. There will surely be some give and take, with most everyone forced to accept something they’d rather see omitted in order to get included the reforms they believe will make a difference. This is compromise…and it is vital if we wish to succeed!
Finally, with reform in hand, candidates in 2018 shouldn’t be asked about their views, but only whether they are for or against this specific reform. Use a pro/anti framework to paint reform opponents in a negative light (Pro-Cure vs. Anti-Cure…Anti-Corruption vs. Pro-Corruption…Pro-Super Awesome Plan vs. Anti-Super Awesome Plan…etc.). Unleash a grassroots army built over the prior four years, and pair it with a sophisticated media campaign run by the pro-reform Super PAC enshrined in 2016. Use every tool and trick to spread the word to voters that this is it: our collective opportunity to finally do something about the corruption we all despise!
So please join me in supporting the New Hampshire Rebellion in 2016 and beyond. Let us all work to make this as successful an effort as possible. If you agree with the viewpoints laid out here, please let your opinion be known. What took place this winter in New Hampshire was only the potential first steps of a much larger movement. If it is to grow and succeed, it is a movement which must ultimately belong to us all, with each of us lending our unique brands of inspiration and perspiration to the effort.
Together, let us lay the groundwork for reform now by educating and organizing, and then later ensure that the shape of reform is not usurped by those who would oppose it. Together, let us be mindful that the actions we take now will have very real consequences on the final outcome. Together, let us work together to give voters the very best opportunity possible to once-and-for-all end the systemic corruption of government currently destroying our country from within.
Together, let us be victorious!
Published 4/4/14 at www.commonsensecure.com
The Common Sense Cure was born in the wake of the Citizens United decision, and it is in the wake of the McCutcheon decision that it is being brought back to life. Much progress has been made in the interim, and the public is catching on to the real problems caused by money in politics. But most still do not appreciate the dire scope of this problem and continue to feel impotent about their ability to change matters. Progress is being made, but far, far too slowly. McCutcheon is a wake-up call and a call to arms, and how we respond will ultimately determine our chances of success.
The writing has been on the wall for years that the courts would soon have campaign finance limits going the way of the dodo. So now that this has (all but) come to pass, it is critical that the reform community centralize around a plan which features both a workable & effective reform which does not utilize limits, as well as a nimble & multi-faceted strategy to enact that reform. We must then figure out a way to explain this plan in an easy-to-understand manner, which allows the average voter to buy in and mobilize in a way they’ve been unwilling to in prior elections.
Whether the Common Sense Cure is that plan or not, it is at the least a model of what such a plan might resemble. There are lots of other plans out there, some similar, others not. Whichever plan reformers rally around however, to succeed it must have both an effective reform and a workable strategy
…and it must be nonpartisan!
This was the other issue The Cure sought to address in its initial incarnation, that too often, the idea of campaign finance reform, or any other attempt to mitigate the influence of money, was a partisan, liberal affair. Reformers should work to dispel this idea –and some do – but too often, you’ll hear the need for reform mixed in with other, more traditional political arguments. This muddies the waters and alienates potential allies.
To make matters worse, many in the reform community align themselves closely with members of the Democratic Party. Of course, it would be silly to spurn allies who are in a position of power and can help one’s cause, but there must be more visible outreach to the Republican Party so that this doesn’t become just another partisan issue lost in the whirlwind of noise. Even if the Democrats are more natural allies, there are Republicans who agree on this issue and there is a damaging perception that little is being done to work with them.
Plus, after years of alliance, where has working with Democrats gotten reformers? Nowhere is the answer, because even well-meaning Democrats see the issue of reform primarily as a way of raising money & support. Well-meaning or not, they all know they’re unlikely to ever have to take a meaningful stand on the issue when government is now so systematically corrupt from top to bottom.
So Democrats aren’t the answer if success is the goal. No, this has to be an independent movement composed of those from all across the political spectrum, demanding the sort of changes that a captured government cannot & will not apply to itself, or it will surely fail.
Of course, reaching out to those with whom you might disagree politically can be tough when the media and people trying to raise money for political operations work so tirelessly to convince us that those on the other side are horrible, evil people. But the reality is the people with whom you disagree politically mostly want the same things – a good job and a happy life for them & theirs – they just don’t agree on how best to accomplish our nation’s goals.
However, so long as money rules in politics, all of it is just a sideshow anyway. If we put aside our differences and work together to fix the issue at the heart of things, we remove the true impediment to finding solutions which might ultimately satisfy both sides. The people who run things want us distracted and at each other’s throats. Nothing scares them more than when we set aside differences and work together (which should tell you something).
Forget Iraq, Afghanistan or the War on Terror; getting the corrupting influence of money out of politics is the defining battle of our generation. Until we fix this, things are just going to keep getting worse and worse, and no amount of hunkering down and hoping disaster doesn’t find you will prevent that. This will touch us all in a profoundly negative way in the end and it is time all of us get to work in whatever way we can to find a solution. A captured government won’t fix itself. We must fight or surrender…there is no third option.
The FEC (Federal Election Commission) is currently a corpse – lifeless, ineffective, and useless. Elections financed by a tiny sliver of the population threaten the health of our democracy, yet it remains ever inert. The current murmur to reform and strengthen the agency should be a roar given the enormous effect doing so would have on restoring a government by, for, and of the people.
Currently, amending the Constitution is the most widely embraced solution for ending the systemic corruption fueled by money in politics. However, an amendment will take many years to implement, and as other reformers have correctly argued, steps should be taken in the interim. Unlike other short-term fixes however, reforming the FEC has the unique potential to actually eliminate the need to amend the Constitution.
Let’s back up a little. There are two primary arguments for a constitutional amendment. The first is well known –an amendment bypasses the Supreme Court, which has taken the idea of non-person personhood to ridiculous extremes.
The second is that any law put in place using the normal legislative process can be easily undone later. While not as well known, it is this second reason many in the reform community believe an amendment to be the most viable solution.
There are plenty of ways to reign in political spending that don’t run afoul of the Supreme Court…it is just virtually impossible under current conditions to pass a law with teeth, and then make it stick. Reforming the FEC is the exception; and one which could help facilitate additional reforms.
Here’s how a remade FEC would work:
First, decouple its budgeting from Congress so it couldn’t be starved of necessary funds (a huge conflict of interest). Have the agency instead submit a budget to the CBO for review and approval. Whatever the price tag, it pales in comparison to the cost of an electoral system rigged to favor big donors.
Next, we need independent and qualified commissioners, not political hacks appointed to gum up the works. Assign the GAO (Government Accountability Office) to compile a list of 25 qualified (and willing) candidates to serve as commissioners. From that list, the President and majority and minority leaders in both houses of Congress would each select one commissioner. The GAO would assign those selected to each head one of the five departments of the remade FEC: Elections, Lobbying/Ethics, Campaign Finance, Regulatory Review, and Public Outreach.
Elections, Lobbying/Ethics, and Campaign Finance are self-explanatory. Regulatory Review would examine how closely different regulatory agencies’ actions adhere to their stated purpose, offering non-binding recommendations. Public Outreach would educate citizens on current election laws and receive input about ways to improve them. All departments except Public Outreach would be armed with an investigative unit, with any wrongdoings uncovered turned over to the Department of Justice for prosecution.
Commissioners would serve five-year terms with one commissioner replaced annually. Each of the five selecting offices (President, majority/minority leaders) would rotate year-to-year in selecting the new commissioner; again from a list compiled by the GAO. Mobility between departments would be allowed, with terms tied to the individual, not the department.
In addition to oversight and regulatory duties, the commissioners would initiate changes to laws governing elections, campaign finance and lobbying.
Each year, the five commissioners would produce a list of changes to existing election law, with a 4-1 vote required for inclusion. Congress would approve or disapprove via a straight up/down vote in both chambers. If disapproved, the commission could be advised which specific items were objectionable. The commission could either remove or amend those sections before resubmitting, repeating until approved. Voters could hold accountable lawmakers voting against popular changes; making the process of government a bit more salient (another positive side effect).
Ultimately, allowing an independent agency to initiate changes to election, lobbying and campaign finance laws, means that Congress could no longer undo beneficial reforms. An amendment might still be necessary, but not for that reason.
A new and improved FEC would also be a powerful ally in government. An agency whose goal is to ensure elections are run fairly and above the board would likely view the current cozy arrangement between campaign donors, lobbyists, regulators and elected officials unfavorably; and act accordingly. Best of all, breaking off the FEC from the conflict-of-interest laden control of Congress would be a nonpartisan affair, as neither side should gain advantage from rules being fairly constructed and enforced.
Remaking the FEC should be a top priority for the enormous potential it holds.
Done properly, it could make the push for an amendment moot. At the very least, it can be a fantastic bridge between the status quo and an amendment, which even supporters admit will be a lengthy process. A long-term strategy is great, but we must arrest the momentum of the special interests devouring our government right now. Putting impartial judges on the field when we hold our elections is a great place to start.
Reform-minded people working to sever the corrupting influence of money in politics have had a rough few weeks. First came the collapse of Americans Elect as a platform by which a reform-minded candidate could get their message heard; followed shortly thereafter by the suspension of Buddy Roemer’s candidacy for president. Combined, these losses mean the existing power structure will go largely unchallenged in this year’s presidential election.
Despite this setback, no one should hang their head or despair for the long-term prospects of fixing our broken system. Gaining traction in 2012 was always going to be a tough row to hoe; but the seeds planted this election season will bear fruit in 2014 and beyond.
There were two steep challenges facing any efforts at reform this year: The dynamics of presidential election cycles and inertia.
Presidential elections suck up vast amounts of oxygen in terms of interest/relevance with both the media and the voting public. In addition, most voters still cling to the belief – justifiably or not – that their vote matters in a system completely dominated from start to finish by special interests. Perhaps most importantly, in presidential elections voters turn to familiar parties and their hyper-partisan framing of issues because they are motivated to defeat the evil hordes of the opposing party. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to advocate for the sort of necessary structural reforms that require support and cooperation from voters across the political divide.
Of course the media influences public perception about what is and isn’t possible, and who is or isn’t electable; a fact Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer both found out the hard way. Each failed to earn a spot on the main stage due to a variety of factors (some of their own making), but one significant commonality was that both were marginalized by a media either controlled or compliant to powerful special interests.
Additionally, because the presidential contest so thoroughly dominates, reformers must battle congressional, state and local candidates for the scraps of attention not focused on the main prize. The small amount garnered wasn’t enough to propel either Americans Elect or Roemer past the obstacles special interests (mostly via a compliant government and media) have erected.
It is no coincidence that the Occupy movement was able to capture the national conversation in an off-election year; or that the Tea Party’s spectacular success came in a non-presidential cycle. How much attention is paid to either movement these days? Is either having similar levels of success in getting their message out or influencing the outcomes of elections this year?
The net result of course is that no matter who wins in November, we will have elected a president who is extremely sympathetic to the special interests who financed his campaign. In the meantime, lacking a candidate championing reform, this election will continue to focus on the same hollow partisan debate that rarely leads to resolution. Rather, it diverts people’s attention away from the true source of their problems; while masking the reason why government is incapable of solving any of them.
Yet positive developments abound. Both Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer brought much-needed attention to the issue of a broken system and the root causes behind it. People on every side of the political divide are awakening to the underlying problems within our system; while the nascent effort to enact a constitutional amendment to root out corruption further raises the issue’s profile. Yet still, we remain at the point where the vast majority of voters will not act until their lives have been affected in a significantly adverse way; and even then reluctantly. Only when things reach a critical mass and a viable solution has gained broad acceptance, will that tipping point arrive.
A presidential election year is a great time to talk about these issues because average voters are paying more attention than normal. However, continued belief in our failing institutions also means that a conflicting message – of a broken system – which potentially undermines that belief, might face a less than receptive audience in the short-term. This is a great year for sowing, but not so much for reaping.
For now we should continue to support candidates at all levels who support fixing the corrupt system of pay-to-play government. When the election passes and the political campaigns end, the campaign to spread this message to voters should not.
Over time, the more this message is repeated, the likelier voters will blame money in politics for (what is likely to be) an extremely ugly election. Prospects for reform also increase incrementally every time voters hear that reforming a broken system engenders better solutions on the issues they value most – education, economy, defense, health care and more. The greater the body of evidence presented to voters consistently over time, the greater the likelihood the issue of money and influence in politics becomes THE central issue in the 2014 election cycle.
Success will not occur overnight, but a quietly growing consensus means it could come sooner than many think. In the meantime, the focus should be to continue to plant the seeds which will pay dividends come the reaping…and to have ready a solution worthy of that moment when it arrives.
For reformers working on ending the influence money has on government policy – a supposedly nonpartisan issue – where is the line between being a reformer and being a partisan? Those who devote their time and energy to ridding our system of the corrupting influence of special interest money are naturally going to be politically active and likely to have strong feelings about most issues. For these people and groups, where is the line between fighting for core principals and being willing to set aside differences to cooperate on a critical area of agreement?
Those who champion this cause and know that success requires cooperation have a duty to lead by example; especially groups and individuals with high profiles. If money in politics is poisoning everything else, than all other problems are symptoms of this root cause; and thus ending the corrupting influence is really the only thing that matters. Traditional partisan quarrels only benefit the status quo.
People across the political divide are awakening to the fact that the corrupting influence of money is the main cause of government failure. Yet in a polarized environment, cooperation is difficult; even when mutually beneficial.
We must begin to look at our political opponents not as the fools and/or traitors we are constantly told they are, but as respected opponents worthy of consideration. The reality is that once you peel away all the nonsense, most Americans of all political stripes truly believe in merit; that no one is entitled to get something for nothing. We just disagree on what role government should play to ensure everyone has a reasonable opportunity to maximize their potential.
Pretty basic stuff, but thanks to special interest control of government we have been routinely ignored and forced to eat policies & politics that neither side finds particularly palatable…and so the discourse has gotten a bit crazy. People are ripe for a new paradigm, but old habits are hard to break.
Reformers who understand the need to cooperate have a duty to lead by example and ensure their actions and words align. If leading reformers calling for a truce can’t refrain from partisanship, how on earth can we expect the average voter to do so?
Unfair as it might seem, this is especially true for progressives & liberal-leaning reformers. The average conservative sees most efforts to enact campaign finance or other good-government reforms as attempting to rig the game in the favor of progressives. Attacking corporations while ignoring the influence unions still wield over the political process (no matter how disproportionate) is just one way reform groups’ can often act counterproductively.
A perfect example is the recent attack on ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) by ‘nonpartisan’ reform groups in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. For groups seeking to unite political factions to suddenly champion a highly partisan issue such as gun control is both puzzling and short-sighted.
It is perfectly reasonable to highlight how ALEC acts as a conduit between big donors and legislators; as well as to ask the very legitimate question of whether we want private groups writing the laws we live under. Attacking specific issues championed by ALEC on the other hand – such as gun control – reverts to the same old go-nowhere partisan politics we need to be rising above in order to achieve a much more meaningful victory.
This particular battle might yield a ‘win’ for one political side or the other, but waging it at all counts as a major loss in the broader and more important war to end corruption and repair our broken government. Reformers should certainly fight for what they believe to be moral & just, but they must also be mindful of which battles it is appropriate to wage and which they should let others fight in their stead.
Above all reformers must be aware of the broader implications of their actions and understand that the coalition necessary for success will never be built by attacking the political beliefs of prospective partners.
Guest post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org
In January of this year, Gallop continued its practice of polling Americans on their political ideologies. As you can see here, the pattern is fairly consistent over time, but in 2012, 40% of all Americans described themselves as “conservative,” 35% as “moderate” and 21% as “liberal.”
Given that a highly motivated supermajority of voters is needed to enact the kind of sweeping reforms readers of this page know is necessary, then isn’t the support of conservatives also necessary?
You wouldn’t know it to read and listen to the rhetoric of so-called “reform” organizations, who in this election year seem more interested in defeating Republicans and electing Democrats than they are in real reform.
Indeed, all of the big reform organizations couldn’t alienate conservatives more if they tried. Some of these groups help our organization in various ways, so out of a sense of diplomacy they will go unnamed.
First, any conservative who is even a little interested in reform has read or heard about Peter Schweizer’s book, Throw Them All Out. Many reform groups have in fact used Schweizer’s information on congressional insider stock trading in their advocacy for the recently passed Stock Act. That legislation was produced as a result of Schweizer’s reserach, though he says it does not go far enough.
But these same reform groups who embraced Schweizer’s work on congressional insider trading won’t go near the other findings in his book. They won’t touch the charge that the Obama Energy Department has probably engaged in the worst case of crony capitalism in American history. Schweizer, taking into consideration only one green energy loan program, reports that “$16.4 to $20.5 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”!) in loans granted went to companies either run by or primarily owned by Obama financial backers-individuals who were bundlers, members of Obama’s national Finance Committee, or large donors to the Democratic Party.” Solyndra is only the most well-known green energy boondoggle reeking of corruption.
Reformers won’t criticize Nancy Pelosi, who appears to have engaged in insider trading and corrupt land deals, according to Schweizer.
Instead one reform group has targeted conservative Senator Tom Coburn for his opposition to the Stock Act. Coburn said he was against the bill because insider trading was already illegal and he did not want to participate in what he saw as a charade designed only to make Congress appear responsible. He also curiously said that he did not believe members of Congress were trading on inside information. One can certainly disagree with Coburn’s position, yet it seems principled, even if potentially flawed.
Coburn has never been accused of the least bit of personal corruption, unlike Pelosi or those involved with the green energy loan program, which stinks to high heaven. Yet one powerful reform group is trying to make an example out of Coburn, one of Congress’ cleanest Republicans. It only makes sense if they are partisans first and reformers second. (You can watch this recent interview with Coburn on “Morning Joe” and decided for yourself if he sounds corrupt).
Second, reform groups are targeting – and successfully intimidating – the corporate funders of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC typically funds conservatives and conservative causes. One reform group has even shamefully exploited the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman tragedy by creating an alleged conspiracy between ALEC and Martin’s death. The campaign against ALEC seems coordinated with the White House, which is also engaging in intimidation.
Obviously no conservative would be interested in supporting any “reform” organization which only targets conservative funders and is obviously allied with the Democrat establishment.
Third, as has been repeatedly discussed, the focus on Citizen United is inspired by partisanship as much as by reform. Important Democrat politicians on Capitol Hill – who take money hand over fist from Wall Street – support overturning Citizens United because undisclosed contributions to ALEC or American Crossroads threaten their political careers. The undisclosed nature of contributions to some of these groups means that the funders cannot be intimidated by those in power, and that makes those in power unhappy.
Again, reversing Citizens United does not fix the system. Professor Larry Lessig, a true progressive and authority on the subject, has himself said it won’t fix the system. Yet partisan reform groups have effectively convinced their liberal base (and many moderates too ) that a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United is the most critical reform. Without conservative support, they have virtually no chance of passing such an amendment, but imagine if they did. Can the nation really afford a constitutional amendment with limited reforming power about on the scale of McCain Feingold? Imagine the cynicism when people discover how feeble such an amendment would actually be? At least some Democrat incumbent politicians would be happy.
Professor Lessig has also warned that ending “corporate personhood” won’t necessarily even change anything about Citizens United, but language like “ending corporate personhood” is red meat (or is “fresh bean salad” a better analogy?) to the progressive base and sure helps with the fundraising for progressive reform groups. The funders of the reform groups, by the way, are undisclosed and therefore protected from the sort of intimidating pressures that the funders of ALEC are now experiencing.
The conduct of progressive reform groups infuriates and disgusts conservatives who understand reform issues and care about them. For conservatives who know less about reform, they just assume that reform is about progressive politics, and they’re against it. And who could blame them?
If we assume that a united front of citizen outsiders – including conservatives – is necessary to break the Washington establishment and enact real reform, then the many partisan progressive reform groups are doing more harm than good. They are their own worst enemies, unless of course their real missions are to elect progressive Democrats.
Now that the battle over Voter IDs is afoot, it becomes clearer & clearer that increased voter cynicism and a weakened democracy are the most likely outcomes; barring a change in the terms of the debate. The biggest problem at this point is that whatever the political motivations behind efforts to enact Voter ID laws, those opposing these new laws fail to acknowledge the fact that most Americans required to show photo ID in so many facets of their day-to-day lives aren’t likely to have much sympathy for people who can’t be bothered. They might be sympathetic to the plight of the millions of voters now potentially disenfranchised, but that won’t make them think it’s a bad idea to require ID to vote; they’ll just think people without ID should go get one. Of course that is sometimes easier said than done, especially when political operatives pushing Voter IDs are simultaneously creating new roadblocks to securing that ID. All of which adds up to more cynicism and little chance that voting conditions will actually improve.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to combat voter fraud without disenfranchising anyone. Even better, it can make our election process much more secure than Voter IDs alone could ever accomplish, while providing immeasurable benefit to communities across the nation. All that is required is to conditionally embrace Voter IDs as part of a more extensive reform making it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” as GOP Party Chairman Reince Priebus put it. Here’s how:
1. Create a new federal photo ID which could be used in situations requiring ID, including voting. Provide federal funding to libraries and law enforcement agencies who agree to take on the task of helping citizens procure a federal photo ID. The extra funding could be used for any purpose, as long as basic requirements were met in regards to assisting with photo IDs. This approach to the Voter ID problem kills two birds with one stone – reversing the counterproductive trend of decreasing funding for these public resources at the exact moment when public need is increasing – while simultaneously providing voters a convenient outlet to procure a free photo ID.
2. Ensure that lack of one form of documentation (such as a valid birth certificate) doesn’t prevent procuring ID if another means to verify identity can be produced; a major issue for older, minority and/or rural Americans. Library or law enforcement officials would review required documentation, enter the person’s relevant information, take and record a digital picture of the person, and then send this information off for processing. The ID would be produced centrally, most likely by a private company contracted to do so by the government, and mailed either directly to the person or available for pick up where the ID was generated.
3. Disabled, elderly or rural voters (living more than 10 miles from any library or law enforcement office assisting with IDs) would be able to schedule in-home appointments to procure photo ID. A contractor – much like a notary public – could be hired to drive to that person’s house, verify documentation, input data, take a digital photograph, and send it off for processing. Hospitals, Long-Term Care and Elder-Care Facilities could be serviced similarly.
4. Provide funding to states who voluntarily expand access to voting via early voting, voting by mail, or similar ways to give voters greater ease & opportunity in casting their ballots. Similarly, in states where photo ID is required to vote, allow voters with photo ID to register to vote on Election Day.
5. Require voters in any state using computers to either record or compile votes to initial a paper record of their vote. This paper verification could come in the form of a punch-hole or mark next to the candidate’s name, or a print-out from a computerized voting machine. The voter would simply verify his/her choice(s), initial the paper copy and place it in a receptacle. There would be an automatic audit of a small sample of paper records contrasted against the computer result. Discrepancies would trigger a wider audit or even a recount, ensuring that it is the will of the voters and not that of computer hackers (or those employing them) being carried out. Finally, states would receive funding to update their election equipment and train election officials in order to become compliant with these changes.
This approach would put people’s right to vote – and to have that vote accurately counted – above petty partisan politics. The first four reforms would protect against voter fraud by requiring ID, something the Democrats would need to accept as part of a larger compromise, while making ID easily available and thwarting Republican attempts denying ID to Democratic-leaning constituencies. The fifth & final reform deals not with the individual fraud that Voter ID targets, but the system-wide fraud perpetrated by computer hackers; which is the greater threat by far.
If the Department of Defenses, CIA and FBI can be hacked, it’s probably safe to assume that the unsophisticated array of voting systems we have across this country wouldn’t be too great a challenge to any hacker even mildly determined to tinker with voting results. Yet even as we require people to show ID when voting at the risk of disenfranchising millions, we remain completely trusting of the computers recording and/or compiling votes; so much so that we require absolutely no means to verify the accuracy of their count. Does that strike anyone else as odd?
If we are going to protect our vote, let’s really protect our vote from all threats of fraud; without forcing voters to choose between allowing voter fraud or disenfranchising voters. We can do far better than that. Adopting this solution has the potential to transform a looming dark chapter in our electoral history into a reaffirmation of our commitment to a government chosen by a popular vote of its citizens. Join us in demanding of our leaders a better approach to protecting our vote, our right to vote, and ultimately…our democracy.
As big-spending Super PACs continue to dominate our election process this year, the debate about the role of money in elections will continue to heat up. Yet while it is a near certainty that the media will portray the opposing views of those on the left & right as being incompatible with one another, there is more common ground on this issue than meets the eye; and a solution which benefits all sides equally is possible.
The conservative viewpoint on political spending generally holds that money will always find a way in, and any obstacles put in its path easily circumvented. Add in the fact that such obstacles are often seen as either violating free speech rights or putting too much power in the hands of congress, and it’s little surprise conservatives show little inclination to support (progressive) solutions which offer more of the same. Instead, conservatives often counter with the argument that money should flow freely without limits, but in a transparent way so voters can know who is funding whom. Progressives are of course horrified by this prospect, and argue that such a deluge of unlimited money would completely drown out ordinary voices already struggling to be heard.
The reality is that both views have merit. Money has consistently found a way into the process no matter what limits or restrictions have been enacted, reinforcing the conservative argument. On the other hand, simply letting the money flow without acknowledging the corrupting effect it has had on our system would take a serious problem and make it much, much worse. So the question then is, if there are flaws with both approaches and neither is likely to get the broad support necessary for success anyway, why do both sides continue to cling to dead-end solutions?
Frankly, progressives are worrying themselves with the wrong thing in this debate. Rather than focusing on limiting the money, and immediately making conservatives dig in their heels, why not focus instead on the influence and/or control which that money buys? If there were a way to use the conservative model, and thus gain necessary conservative support, why should it matter whether the money flows or not if the influence/control it buys has been dealt with?
What if in exchange for eliminating all contribution limits, and letting the money flow freely and with more-or-less instantaneous disclosure/transparency, the following reforms were implemented:
~ Clean funding for the campaigns of federal candidates, offering voters the choice of quality candidates free of the strings often attached to special interest money.
~ Congressional term-limits with provisions to ensure people leaving government service can’t immediately spin through the revolving door and profit from their ‘service’.
~ An independent oversight authority free of congress’ influence, which would be able to legitimately enforce election, lobbying and campaign finance laws. No more lax enforcement and slaps on the wrist for those not playing by the rules.
~ An end to gerrymandering and other types of voter fraud which allow politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
The only thing this approach would fail to accomplish is to ensure that ordinary voices were given the opportunity to be heard. But really, at what point in our entire history as a nation has that been a priority in our electoral process? Sure we celebrate the vote in our democracy, but the wealthy and powerful have been the driving force in elections since the very beginning. In fact, with the advent of the internet and other modern technology, one could argue that average voters have never been more likely to have their voices heard than they currently do; even as difficult as it can be to penetrate the cacophony created by special interest money.
Additionally, as Obama’s 2008 campaign & the Tea Party in 2010 have both recently demonstrated, enthusiastic volunteers/supporters can still have an enormous impact on elections regardless of special interest money. Perhaps candidates free of special interest influence (and more in touch with concerns of voters in their communities) would lead to even higher levels of involvement; especially if the current gap in relative worth between campaign volunteers and special interest money narrowed as a result of changes to election law.
At the end of the day, if we can somehow strengthen the voices of ordinary voters and limit the influence of special interests on our government…does it really matter whether or not we ‘get the money out’?
This question is especially pertinent when you consider how ineffective existing limits on contributions have been. Bundlers easily circumvent limits on direct contributions to candidates in order to gain influence; and who knows what sort of favors are being bought with the gobs & gobs of money pouring into Super PACs and other independent groups?
The money is already flowing freely and influence being bought left & right. If a compromise could be reached using the conservative framework which focused on limiting influence & control rather than money, we would emerge with a system infinitely better than the current one. Abandoning solutions which truly get the money out of politics(and thereby avoiding entirely any free speech concerns) would be a small price to pay for such a colossal improvement in our electoral system; and in turn our government.
Whenever I voice concern over a constitutional amendment being the favored solution for ending special interest control of government – something I strongly favor – there seems to be some consternation or confusion over what people see as a disconnect. The reality is I would be fine with an amendment if I thought it would be effective, but the fundamental problem is that there are two probable outcomes I can see emerging from taking this approach; and neither is good. They are:
1. It would fail to pass because it included everything necessary to truly solve the problem, thereby failing to garner the broad support necessary for passage.
2. It passes, but fails to fully solve the problem, while a public exhausted from the extraordinary effort required to pass an amendment (and thinking the problem generally solved) lacks the willpower to finish the job. The end result would be a feel-good reform which offered slight improvements, but where the majority of money would simply divert into new/different channels, leaving special interests in power and falling far short of the goal of reclaiming government from the 0.01%.
This is why I have primarily advocated for an approach other than an amendment; and will continue to do so. In fact, the recent call by Mitt Romney (and others) for the elimination of contribution limits entirely (due to the outsize effect of Super PACs in the GOP primary) gives credence to my solution The Common Sense Cure. I still believe it a better approach to act legislatively by electing politicians committed to a specific nonpartisan solution (thereby giving voters the ability to vote directly on the issue) which, in exchange for eliminating contribution limits, would put in place reforms to offset the effect of money on elections.
However, there is also recognition that the push for an amendment is a moving train which will be difficult to stop at this point. This is one of the primary reasons for the newly-formed collaboration with Americans United to Rebuild Democracy; a group seeking a nonpartisan approach like The Cure, but whose approach requires a constitutional amendment. If the solution must be an amendment, it is especially critical to actually listen to the voices of people from across the political divide when drafting language, because passage will require the buy-in of more than just one ideological group. The Rebuild Democracy model offers a nonpartisan approach capable of winning broad support, while offering a solution which comes closest to actually ending special interest control.
Currently there are three themes of amendment language most widely discussed: ending corporate personhood, declaring that money does not equal speech, and mandating publicly funded elections. Of course there are others, but most share similar shortcomings, fail to meet the criteria already outlined and/or lack much popular support. So for the sake of brevity this examination will focus on these three approaches:
1. Ending corporate personhood: The concept is fine but the first question is, are we talking about ending the ‘personhood’ of just corporations or all types of groups? One answer raises free-speech concerns when we are talking about public interest groups (like the NRA or Sierra Club) or professional trade groups; and perhaps even unions. The opposing answer raises the political concern that conservatives will feel that the special interests most closely aligned with their ‘side’ are being silenced, while unions & other liberal donors are unaffected. Both sides have historically attacked reforms giving this appearance with near-universal ferocity.
The other problem with an amendment which only ended corporate personhood is that all it would really accomplish is putting the power to control corporate political spending in the hands of congress. This would be the same congress thoroughly corrupted by special interest cash and full of members keenly interested in boosting the prospects for their own re-election. Wealthy donors could still donate to campaigns individually, just as they could prior to Citizens United, and bundling and other means to stretch contribution limits would all still exist. In light of this, what sort of laws are people hoping to see emerge in the wake of an amendment? If it’s loophole-filled and incumbent-friendly they’ll probably be in luck.
Don’t get me wrong, I am offended by the idea that a construct which cannot die and feels nothing is given the same rights as you & I; especially in regards to its ability to dominate the public conversation both politically & otherwise. But that is a different issue from how best to fix a corrupt and broken government. An amendment ending corporate personhood might make people feel better, but in the end it wouldn’t really accomplish a whole lot without additional reform; unlikely to happen given the way it is being sold. Sure it would allow congress to regulate corporate political donations and rein in Super PACs, but would they? And really, do we need an amendment just to accomplish that? Simply put, there are higher priorities than ending corporate personhood, especially given both the free-speech & political implications from its inclusion in final language.
2. Money doesn’t equal speech: Again, while it’s possible to favor the idea in principle, the same issues arise in that this by itself would merely give congress the ability to control political spending at its conflict-of-interest-plagued discretion; a somewhat less than ideal outcome. Throw in the free-speech implications it might have on the media, on our ability to organize in legitimate interest/trade groups and the like (and would this change apply only to campaign contributions or more widely; and is that distinction made or left to the courts?); and again the question arises whether this language can win conservative support, regardless of what widely-quoted polls say.
3. Publicly funded elections: As a long-time proponent of some form of publicly funded elections, I fully support the inclusion of this provision; yet still have two concerns. First is that by itself – while it would succeed in offering voters new choice in the form of candidates free from special interest influences – it would also leave these influence-free candidates at risk of being overwhelmed by Super PACs and other independent expenditures. Traditionally the spending floor in political campaigns has been more important than the ceiling, but the ability of Super PACs to dump enormous amounts of anonymous money in a very short period of time into campaigns is somewhat of a game-changer. Publicly funded campaigns alone would be far superior to the status quo, yet ideally any final solution would also address the proliferation of independent expenditures in some manner. (Note: The Rebuild Democracy amendment does not address this issue either; my primary concern with it in its current form even though it otherwise has my support.)
The other concern is political in nature. While many conservatives oppose the Citizens United ruling, their preferred solution is generally not publicly-funded elections. Therefore it seems somewhat unlikely that conservatives would support this approach without gaining something they favor in return; such as congressional term limits.
Of course some proposals combine two or even all three of these approaches, and while the effectiveness increases with the inclusion of each, so too do the free-speech concerns. As those mount the likelihood that conservatives (or even moderates) would support such an amendment decreases exponentially.
People across the political divide are awakening to the idea that with both major parties controlled by special interest money, fixing a broken system becomes more important even than whom we elect. This joins a growing awareness that solving this problem will require traditional political foes to cooperate to some degree. But what has largely failed to occur is for reformers (on either side) to actually shift their thinking and attempt to see things from an opposing viewpoint when contemplating reform. The current crop of proposed amendments – which conflate broad opposition to special interest control of government with broad support for the solutions being proposed – are a perfect example. Without a change in approach, the error of that assumption will become apparent soon enough, to all of our detriment.
Ending special interest control of government, and returning our republic to its rightful owners, requires that we set aside the issues dividing us and focus instead on this single issue which unites us; regardless the final shape of reform. The first step is to actually listen to each other! There is no better time than the present to get started.
Reversing Citizens United (Part 2 of 2): A Misguided Strategy