Citizens: Unite!

(I’m going to do a few posts on politics and money. So if that annoys you, come back in a week or so.)

Donald Trump is not the problem.

(He’s a problem, as you can see from this article about a man who live-Twittered a Trump rally. But the problem of Donald Trump is self-correcting: the Twitters make it clear that the audience is small, and almost entirely white, angry, and incoherent. People with that voting base do not win Presidential elections, witness Newt Gingrich, Pat Robertson, David Duke, and of course, H. Ross Perot, the other angry, incoherent billionaire who ran for President. Trump will, eventually, go away.)

The problem is money. And the first thing we need to do, before we worry about getting rid of this politician or that politician, before we worry about legislation on this issue or that issue – the first thing we need to do, right now, is separate money from politics.

There’s no way to separate them completely, of course. We live in a capitalist society, and money is in everything. Money can buy everything (Other than love.), and so money can represent, can serve as a stand-in, for everything – which means that, on some abstract level, money is everything. Government is largely powered by its ability to control money: through taxation, through regulation, through allocation. Politicians have to be able to spend money, in quantities that are inconceivably vast. I have found myself lately unimpressed by “billions.” I hear that this industry earns profits of $3 billion a year, $5 billion a year, and I always think, “Is that it?” It’s because I pay attention to politics, where the numbers are hundreds of times, thousands of times greater than that. Trillions impress me. Politicians have to spend trillions, and take in trillions, every year. Politicians also have to get paid, and while I sort of like the Founding Fathers’ system of part-time legislators who had to have full-time jobs because they didn’t get a salary for government office, I do know that politics today are much larger and more complicated than 200 years ago, and so I think it should be a full-time job. Therefore they need to get paid.

Maybe less than they do now, though. President Obama made a comment in the State of the Union about how the only people who have been able to keep the same job for thirty years and build up a good retirement were in the Chamber. And they laughed. And I thought, “That’s not a fucking joke, you asshats.” Forgive the rancor, but as someone who has not been able to keep the same job even for fifteen years, and who has a retirement account balance of “We’re still hoping to save something someday,” I find the President’s comment telling. Almost makes me want to go into politics.

But that’s just it: people want to go into politics for personal gain. Because politics is a profitable industry. Of course it is: politics is about power, the wielding of power over hundreds of millions of people, in nearly all aspects of their lives; and money is transferable. Those two facts make some corruption inevitable. Of course people are going to offer money in exchange for favors – meaning the application of power – and of course politicians are going to take money in exchange for favors. But as the people who are manipulated for that money, but don’t get any of that money, it is incumbent on us to try to limit that process, to protect ourselves from being shut out of control over our own lives. We can’t eliminate it: power corrupts, and money is the tool of corruption, and in a capitalist society with a government of any kind, there will be corruption.

There should be less of it, though.

So where do we start?

Fortunately, the most obvious form of corruption, the direct peddling of influence, is already illegal. I suppose, if we believe it still happens too often, that we could strengthen the law enforcement system that investigates this – the FBI, I believe. But I don’t think the issue is a weak FBI. I think it is a weak media. But I’ll come back to that.

The first issue is the second most obvious form of corruption: campaign contributions. These are limited to spending for re-election, and thus are not simple profit for the politicians who take them – but since money buys elections in this country, because money buys advertising and publicity, and advertising and publicity are more reliable ways to get one’s name into the voters’ heads than the media is, campaign contributions are a way to buy the politician’s influence through offering a chance for the politician to retain and expand that influence. It’s sort of an interesting loop, because the money is buying the application of power through the offer of more power; so it’s a power-for-power deal.

But it’s still corrupt. And it’s actually a really, really simple fix, though admittedly not easy to put in place, because the people who want the system to continue as-is are the ones who currently have the money and the power, and therefore the control.

The fix is this: we make it illegal to spend money in a political campaign.

I’m not the first to think of this; several other countries have political finance laws that limit spending in various ways: the UK doesn’t allow television advertising; France and Germany don’t allow contributions from corporations or unions or government bodies; Australia limits the length of campaigns to six weeks. (Wikipedia) It is only in the U.S. that a Presidential campaign can cost $2 billion, as the race between Obama and Romney did in 2012. (Those billions impress me.) Because our system is the most ridiculous, I would call for the most definite limits: limits on overall spending, limits on campaign contributions (I’d like to see that limit be “$0,” but I’ll take something small like $100 and no contributions from organizations.), a complete ban on buying television and radio advertising. Restrictive? Yes. Now let’s talk about why it is needed, and justified, despite being restrictive.

First, let’s point out that the Citizens United decision was incorrect: while spending may be considered free speech – I just argued that money is in some way everything, so I can’t now say that it isn’t speech, as much as I would like to – the Court’s decision ignored the idea that buying political ads in support of a candidate could be a path to corruption because it can buy political access and a more generous consideration from that candidate; they took direct quid pro quo as their only definition of corruption. This is absurd. When someone gives me a gift, I think of them more kindly afterward. When someone gives me a gift and asks me to think kindly of their cause, I will spend more time thinking about that cause, in addition to thinking kindly about the person who gave me the gift and brought the cause too my attention. When that gift is a million dollars, which allows me to keep my lucrative job for another two to six years, I am going to be especially generous to that cause and the side of the giver, in the hopes that I will get another similar gift later on. And that’s corruption: it’s the purchase of influence, if not actual quid pro quo purchases of votes, and it locks those without millions of dollars to spend out of the equation: but not out of the consequences of the decision. This is why we have right to limit this “speech” – because its free exercise limits our own freedoms, and your rights stop where mine begin.

Along with that, the idea that money may be considered a form of speech doesn’t mean that we are free to speak in any way we like: if the “speech” is something like, “Hey, Doug Ducey [Governor of Arizona, for those who don’t already know the Deuce], we’ll give you millions of dollars to run your campaign, in exchange for you representing the interests of large corporations over the needs of your citizens. Love, the Koch brothers,” then we should not consider that speech free. You might as well tell Hired Goons, Inc., that its standard, “Hey, nice blog you got there. Be a shame if something was to happen to it…” sales pitch was protected free speech, or a conversation between terrorists planning a bombing is First-Amendment-sanctioned free assembly.

You can’t use the First Amendment to protect your ability to do harm to others. Even if your ostensible intention is to help yourself.

If we limit campaign contributions to $100 per person or so, then candidates could still be supported by individuals; and if corporations wanted to support candidates with more than a personal contribution, they could use their ability to gather together many individuals – the whole idea of “incorporation,” taking several separate pieces and forming one “body” from them – and convince them that this candidate was better for the corporation’s collective interests than that candidate. You know, political campaigning. The way unions used to do it, before they got lazy and then corrupt themselves. (Don’t get me wrong: I support unions wholeheartedly. But the disconnect between union leadership and its members has led to the same problems that such distance between head and base always creates: members who are not represented by the body they expect to represent them. Though in the case of unions, it’s not because of campaign contributions and monetary corruption so much, but rather because of inertia and apathy on the part of the majority of the workers. Says the former local union leader. Anyway: different topic.) A CEO with 10,000 employees could, even without threats or coercion, help to swing a $1,000,000 campaign contribution. Even without corruption, that’s power. But it’s the right kind of power: because an elected official should listen to the wishes of 10,000 of his or her constituents. And please, let’s not assume that a CEO just naturally represents the wishes of his or her employees; do you think the Waltons speak for the political will of the nation’s Wal-Mart greeters? Neither do I. But the Waltons do have an easy audience in those workers, and they could try to convince them to support the same political causes and candidates. You, know, legally. With actual free speech.

If we limit campaign spending, we will achieve something even more important than limiting campaign contributions; because with the current system of limited personal contributions (Though the current cap is much higher than I would like it to be) and unlimited spending, all that happens is: Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump can swing an election because he can pay for it himself, and outspend any normal opponent; I am using Cruz here to represent politicians who stop doing their actual jobs in order to spend all of their time soliciting campaign contributions, and who are little more than empty shells echoing the sound of the ocean – in this case, whatever is the absurdity most likely to please the people who continue to give him money. If he can raise enough of a “war chest” (And isn’t it indicative of the trouble in this scenario that we use that phrase? Really? The funding used to conquer a people – or maybe the tribute extracted from the conquered. That’s swell, America. Why don’t we ever pay attention to our own words?) then he can win an election; but it takes a huge amount of work, and an even huger amount of bullshit, to raise that much money, and so that’s what we get: politicians who are full of shit, and who spend no time doing anything other than fundraising. So what we do is put a cap on the amount that can be spent on a campaign, with larger caps for larger offices, and/or larger numbers of voters in the campaign. We should also make TV advertising for politics either illegal, or free for all recognized candidates on an equal-time basis. Advertising is the largest expense by far (Though there are others – travel and staff payroll are two expenses I can’t really quibble with; I think it’s good for politicians to get on a bus and travel through the country and meet the people they want to represent. I think it’s good that voters get to hear speeches from their would-be representatives, in person. And I think politicians need good aides and assistants, since I doubt anyone could fully grasp all of the issues a politician will be expected to deal with.), and if we limit that, then the rest of campaign spending could be counted in realistic numbers – millions or tens of millions, rather than hundreds of millions and even billions. You could raise millions in $100-increments if there were enough constitutents pulling for you. At the least, you could pay for your bus and your staff, and sandwiches for everyone.

Now, I’d like there to be only public funding of elections; if we raised a small tax, we could put some millions of dollars aside for elections, and pay for all campaigns without any personal influence at all; but there are ways for that to be corrupted, as well, and so it may not be a necessary step. Still: I think we should reach the point where we agree that money as free speech should be severely curtailed, and political campaigns are a good place to start.

So okay, Humphrey – how do we achieve all of this? It took years for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill to become law, and even then it was first watered down and then overturned by Citizens United. The people who make the laws are the very ones you’re looking to limit. So what’s the plan?

But lucky for us, we do still live in a democracy, and there are still ways that the will of the people can override even the most intransigent resistance from the current political and economic powers. One of the ways – the best way, because it can’t be changed by anything but the will of the people – is a Constitutional Amendment. And I would argue that this problem is so widespread, and so pervasive through different levels of government, and so damaging to our national interest, that a Constitutional Amendment is called for. That Amendment could set limits on donations, on spending, on advertising; even if they were basic, it could be enough to swing politics back to what it should be: public service, rather than private enterprise.

Let’s show the government, and those who corrupt it, what citizens united can really do. So that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not vanish from this Earth.

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