By Russell A. Clemens
What can be learned from three pseudo-debates between one corrupt, millionaire liar with strong establishment ties and one corrupt, billionaire liar with frighteningly fascistic tendencies? (Both of whom—by coincidence or not—were long-time friends and mutual supporters.)
Nothing, of course. At least, nothing that should be new to us.
Fortunately, there are some clear, important lessons to be learned from this nightmare of an election, if we pull back the curtain of partisan spin and identity politics. That is the one silver lining in all of this. But we had better learn these lessons now, or else be left with nothing but trash today and indefinitely.
But first we must ask ourselves: How have we reached the point where these are our only two options? Where we are forced to choose between the gallows and the hemlock, and all third options are likely to be futile and risk having our more frightful method of execution forced upon us?
How have we reached the point where the best argument for party A’s candidate is “Would you rather be hung?!” and the best argument for party B’s candidate is “Would you rather drink poison?!”
Where we go back and forth yelling and screaming at each other over which of the two representative candidates who doesn’t represent us is less horrible, evil and dangerous than the other.
All this expended energy and passion and division, and for what? To escape the gallows for the hemlock, or vice versa?
How long has it been this way? How many other elected positions in our government offer similarly restricted and terrible options?
This is democracy?
One of the critical lessons we must firmly come to terms with is that, while our government has a sort of democratic structure, it now effectively functions as a plutocracy: a government of the wealthy or controlled by the wealthy. Indeed, a recent Princeton study suggests this is not a fancy exaggeration, but quite nearly approximates the truth. And given that research also suggests we Americans vastly underestimate our country’s level of income inequality, we might also vastly underestimate our country’s inequality of political power—or just how thoroughly our policies are dictated by the interests of the wealthy and of moneyed (mostly corporate and financial) groups.
Maybe nothing exemplifies this better than this presidential election between Donald Trump, a quintessential member of the economic elite, and Hillary Clinton, a quintessential member of the political elite—and one who has well served the economic elite and moneyed interest groups, and who is well into the category of economic elite herself.
Now, some could read this and react with the old accusations of class warfare or hating the rich. Of course, that is missing the obvious point. Any society that is ruled by a select portion of people is naturally going to benefit that portion of people, more or less at the expense of the others. And any society whose functions are dictated by a select portion of people is naturally going to see that concentration of power swell even further, unless changes are made.
The question is, what sort of changes should be made?
Needless to say, there are many. But a foremost priority should be in trying to limit political corruption and, in particular the pestilent influence of money in politics. There are two main areas of concern related to this:
- Campaign Contributions: We need to lower the limits on private campaign contributions from individuals and organizations, have tighter legal restrictions on direct and indirect contributions and fundraising, and consider some sort of public campaign financing. This would help limit electoral bribery, political favors, and other forms of corruption as well as give candidates who wish to represent the people without kowtowing to special interests a better chance of getting their voices heard and getting nominated and elected.
As an example, limiting campaign donations to $100 or $10 per citizen could go a long way in leveling out the playing field, as it would allow nearly all Americans to contribute the maximum amount allowed to the candidate or party of their choice, rather than only big money donors.
Public funding of campaigns could also help.
- Paid Lobbying. This refers to the practice of special interest groups hiring individuals, typically lawyers with good political connections, to influence government or one of its relevant members to support particular legislation or policy. The courts have largely considered this to fall under the First Amendment rights of free speech and the right to petition the government. But for lobby groups and especially those representing the largest of corporate firms, too often these rights cross the line from petition to legalized bribery, or else make it all but impossible for elected officials to go against the will of the dollar. One partial remedy—as advocated by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, an anti-corruption expert, if you will—would be to prohibit political contributions from non-citizens such as corporations, foreign governments, foreign nationals, and all dark money groups. This would not prevent moneyed interests from funding open, “in-the-light” advocacy groups that themselves contribute to campaigns, but it would be a good start.
Removing the lock of money on our political system will not make our government perfectly free of corruption and misdeeds, but it is an utmost priority. And, fortunately, I think it is one that most of us, regardless of our ideological perspective, can agree upon.
Resolving the problems related to this issue will not be easy, but it is possible. However, we must overlook our ideological differences, cease our partisan bickering and senseless division, and work together in order to do so—no matter how strongly we disagree on everything else. For unless we do, none of our needs or wishes are going to be met.
This much is certain.
We cannot rely on politicians. But together we can rely on ourselves.
Russell A. Clemens is a guest political writer for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section. He is always happy to engage readers of different political persuasions.
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