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Our corrupt politics is all about money: Reviewing Ezra Klein's NYRB Lessig review

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Congressional leadership positions went up for sale as leadership PACs became instrumental in procuring them. Leadership which in the pre-partisan years could also stretch across the aisle, became disconnected from political accomplishment and skills other than raising money. Leadership is now purchased from party members, and disloyalty by members entails a cut in funds from the leadership. Money routed through leaders secures party discipline. Obama became the " King of leadership PAC s" in 2008, which helped buy him the support of decisive super-delegates. Leaders -- and therefore their political contributors - control the agenda, which insulates it from any momentary democratic urges from back-benchers to take up proposals that majorities might support.

Both party leaders and their followers who want to retain office in post-1976 Washington must spend most their time raising money. Winners of seats in Congress raise about twice as much as losers on average. The need to establish product differentiation sharpens partisan differences in the competition for money. This became increasingly challenging as the actual product became centered on serving the less than 1% of US adults who furnish money in politics, or more precisely the less than .06% who gave more than $2,400 in 2010.

For access to larger amounts of money it helps to already have control of an influential lever of governance required for influence peddling. Partisanship provides the means to secure control of those levers. As an individual member's prospects for raising money became more tightly connected to the party's control of the levers, the partisan struggle for control of Congress and the presidency became sharper due to the higher stakes for the party members.

What does money in politics buy? It is expensive to assure that propaganda, not truth, wins out in the marketplace of ideas. As Congress members market their services to "the 1% of the 1%" on important issues, they need to obscure that reality while convincing constituents they are serving majority interests on these or other issues. Money buys access to those single issue voters that can be cultivated without alienating, indeed can be converted to supporting, the material interests of those who give the money. The interests of the 1% came to be identified as "centrist" because both parties overlap at the point where the money falls.

Narrow-cast marketing to find and inform all those anti-abortionists, gun advocates, state religionists and other polarized "values" voters without overtly inflaming pro-choice, and other majorities is expensive. In a polity dedicated to the interests of the 1%, partisanship arises from the need to suppress the vote of those generally interested in good government -- those who understand that it makes no difference to the fundamental issues which party is in power - while appealing to people motivated by polarized special interests that do not challenge the power and wealth of the 1%. These tend to be eternal issues like conflicts of values on gender, sex, and state religion, questions not amenable to durable political solutions under the liberal-leaning US Constitution and electorate. They are addressed, though never resolved, through largely symbolic, marginally constitutional, legislative and administrative acts. Steve Shier, By Invitation Only: the rise of exclusive politics in the United States (2000) describes the contemporary political process as an expensive effort to suppress political knowledge and turnout while "segmenting the public and commanding the attention of only particular citizens."

This kind of special interest politics moved from the margins to the mainstream immediately after 1976. These years saw the transformation of the NRA from a gun safety group to being the gun industry lobby, endorsing Reagan in 1980; AIPAC became a major force in shaping American foreign policy. The likes of the "moral majority" religionists supported Reagan tax cuts for the rich while money from the latter helped them stop the ERA. (The 1976 Republican platform still supported ERA, while for the first time opposing abortion.) The 1% need to buy support from voters who would ignore their own political and economic interests as union members and workers in favor of such wedge issues. Nancy L. Cohen, Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution Is Polarizing America (2012). The Republican party became a grand alliance between the 1% and the Christianist Right-Gun Lobby-Misogynist-Gay bashing "values" voters. The Democrats became a grand alliance between the 1% and "lesser evil" voters on the liberal side of those same kinds of issues. Berry, Jeffrey M. and Wilcox, Clyde. The Interest Group Society. (5th ed. 2009).

After 1976, labor lost legislative battles under both parties, though it took several decades of disappointment before unions began in 2011 to reciprocate by withdrawing their financial support from Democrats. Obama has found a way to both ignore the unions' legislative demands while extending support of union leadership for one more election He spins the trickle down economics of corporate shareholder bail-outs as if they were job-saving measures. Not even discussed was why the bankrupt auto industry was not turned over to the workers to manage in which case the jobs might have been more worth saving.

As money in politics led directly to policies, like weakening of unions, that increased inequality, that inequality has in turn led to a myriad of social dysfunctions. A few of the latter described in R.Wilkinson and K.Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009) are anxiety, violence and lack of social trust, which provides a fertile social environment for divisive politics that have, since Nixon, become increasingly mainstream. A more equal society has more civil politics, and would reject the angrily authoritarian divisiveness that characterizes the Republican "base" and its propagandists on the public's airwaves, which under the new "free speech" rules are no longer protected by effective public interest constraints. But the aggression in the electorate is stimulated around issues, not parties.

Ezra Klein makes a distinction without a difference by concluding that "as big a problem as money is in politics ... it is probably not even the worst one." But his "worst problem" in Washington, partisanship, is simply one of the side effects of money in politics, just as increasing inequality and the social effects of inequality are caused by money in politics , along with its companion new First Amendment "right" of commercial speech. It is very difficult to find any dysfunction that arose in American culture and politics after Nixon that is not a result of one of the Supreme Court's two related 1976 decisions that constitutionalized respectively political bribery and unrestrained commercial advertising . Both decisions overturned, under the guise of free speech, common sense restrictions on electioneering expenditures, political and commercial advertising, and other communication tools of plutocratic control like lobbying.

The solution to excessive partisanship that troubles Klein is the same as the solution to inequality and every other broken feature of the American political and cultural landscape. Stripping a Supreme Court in service to plutocracy of its power to impose unrestrained special interest political and commercial advertising on the country under its novel reading of the First Amendment would permit a return to common sense democratic regulations in both of these related fields. If both the mass media and elections are not brought under democratic control, democracy itself will soon disappear.

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A creative thinker on matters of public policy and art, and a principal researcher. Current focus of work is on the strategies democracies can use to protect against overthrow by corruption, with immediate attention to the mess being made by (more...)

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But money in politics is not secondary to partisan... by Larry Kachimba on Saturday, Mar 24, 2012 at 10:01:35 AM
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How sad is this attack on using what the Founders ... by Joel Hirschhorn on Sunday, Mar 25, 2012 at 8:45:34 AM
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