Facts on the Ground (D Balke)

28 Dec

It is difficult to find fault in Patrick’s argument (see his Dec. 28 post A Call for the Leadership We Deserve) that Congressional dysfunction renders the body unable to tackle the immense and growing challenges facing our country. Alluding to the coming “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts, he claims that, “our leaders in Congress prove time and again inept to demonstrate the courage that is needed to find a way to reach an agreement before the clock has stopped.” Suggesting that this policy paralysis extends to other key issues, he then asks, “How can we tackle climate change before it destroys our coastline if our leaders cannot even agree to extend… tax cuts to 98% of Americans?” More glumly still, he contends that “no solution will be found to any problem unless there is a firm deadline that Congress can ignore till the last few days and reach a last ditch agreement afterwards to treat the symptoms of their failure, not the disease underlying the problem.”

This situation is unacceptable and untenable. Left unchecked, it will lead our country to sink, both literally, in the case of climate change, and figuratively, in the case of our long-term fiscal position and a host of other issues. One of the central challenges facing our democracy is that there exists little incentive for the strong political leadership, or courage, needed to tackle big challenges, whether the fiscal cliff, climate change, or health care. Perversely, however, there exist considerable benefits for leading poorly. In this piece, I ask: How do we create the political factors that would incentivize elected officials, particularly in Congress, to attack the “disease” underlying our country’s fundamental problems, rather than treat their symptoms ex post facto?

What incents elected officials to lead poorly and uncourageously? One major reason must surely be the outsized role of money in politics. In order to win elections, candidates need money to run their campaigns. More money now goes into campaign coffers than ever before. This was the case even before the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court deemed Constitutional the ability of corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to political actors. The Citizens decision ended whatever remaining pretense non-wealthy individuals had that they could make their voices heard over the wealthy in terms of garnering attention from politicians.

The outsized role of money in politics makes non-rich citizens feel that politicians only work in the interests of large donors. Non-elite individuals do not feel that they can influence elected officials or candidates. These individuals have little incentive to take time from their busy lives and invest it in researching policy issues and participating in politics more broadly. They have little incentive to study how an elected official or candidate feels about, or has acted on, an issue, and what the implication of that position or action is on society writ large and its future.

We must change this. How do we do it? That is a difficult question to answer. Less difficult is identifying how we will not do it. We will not lessen the role of money in U.S. politics by passing a Constitutional amendment that does as much. We will not do it by passing federal legislation. We will not do it via legislation at the state level. Trying to legislate campaign finance reform is fraught with political peril, particularly when the power to change the system rests precisely with those who benefit from its persistence.

Instead, change requires grassroots efforts, not to change the minds of others, but to change facts on the ground. Such efforts include the election of charismatic leaders who win office without becoming beholden to special interests (a-la Paul Wellstone); pledges between candidates to limit fundraising from certain entities and at certain amounts; and increases in public financing that make accepting such money a viable way to fund winning campaigns, and reasonable requirements that allow non-elite citizens to qualify for such financing.

More broadly, electoral politics must become more inclusive. We need conditions that encourage people to run for office and play an active role in politics at the federal, state, and local levels. One of the main reasons why our country’s political processes do not function more effectively is because middle class folks do not play a central role in shaping them. Individuals on whose lives political policies have the greatest impact remain largely outside of, and excluded from, the country’s political sphere. This perverse status quo must change: optimal policymaking will only emerge when policymaking is done by those whose lives these policies most affect.

Is this all wishful thinking? I wonder what some of my more hardened political observer friends must think about my contentions.

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