Now that the three groups of explanation for American political dysfunction have been laid out and their mutual connections sketched (in parts one, two and three), we can begin to discuss programmatic solutions for our problems. The ten proposals below represent “torque points” in American politics—places where positive change would resonate throughout our political culture. This is the only way to proceed, for disaggregated fixes for specific problems will never get far, given the plutocratic maw into which they will surely fall.
My ten proposals do not fall neatly into any conventional ideological category. I’m neither a registered Democrat (anymore) nor a registered Republican (never have been), and I have already suggested why: I don’t want to go back to 1965 or to 1925. But let me briefly restate my antipathy to both sets of party orthodoxy in somewhat different language before getting to my ten proposals.
The Left in this country, generally speaking, tends to excoriate corporations, even to disparage the profit motive itself, and to think of government as a proper vehicle not only for battling the depredations of capitalism but also for forcing on the nation the kinds of multicultural, politically correct social biases it likes. It has inculcated within itself the old countercultural notion of consciousness-raising, in which it presumes to know more about what’s good for you than you do. It is the self-appointed Robin Hood of our political soul, though its populist pretensions are belied by its elitist ways. The Left displays a blindness to the benefits of a non-distorted market economy, and an even more grievous blindness to the limits of what government can accomplish—especially a government that tries to do more than it should in what has become a misaligned Federal system.
The Right these days, generally speaking, tends to excoriate government, to dismiss the idea of an inclusive and fairly governed national community, and to blame those who are genuinely poor for their own poverty. Much of the Right, having regrettably abandoned its own Burkean heritage, sees through a crude Social Darwinist prism that acknowledges only individual judgment, ignoring the social context in which that judgment is seated.1 It is blind to plutocratic corruption and doesn’t see, either, the widening cultural gap between an isolated elite and those Americans who are falling out of an often recently won and still fragile middle-class status.2 It is particularly blind to the fact that a distorted market system dominated by large corporate oligarchies that deploy increasingly sophisticated advertising methodologies can be responsible for undermining both social trust and the founding virtues.3
Again, there’s no reason to choose between the problems caused by the public sector (a sclerotic, dysfunctional and wildly expensive government) and the problems caused by the private sector (a predatory corporate leadership class, and especially an increasingly powerful parasitic financial elite, that has become an extractive rather than a productive asset for the nation as a whole). Both problems exist, and both are getting worse.
Moreover, these problems are not really separate; they feed one another. Private sector abuses feed the appetite for government protection, but government is too dysfunctional to provide that protection; instead its efforts tend to harm small businesses that lack the arsenals of specialist lawyers and accountants that huge businesses use to evade government attempts to hem them in. You get a hint of this by looking at what the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have had in common, which is a fair bit more than either group likes to admit.
We need an active and bold Federal government for several key but discrete purposes beyond national security; but we can well do without the nanny-state soft despotism it otherwise drapes over our society. If we need a model, a hero from our past who epitomizes this combination, we have at least three to choose from: Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt—Federalist, Whig and Republican.4 Getting to something new that works beyond the blue model, as Frank Fukuyama puts it,
would have to have at least two components, political and economic. Politically, the new ideology would need to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitimate anew government as an expression of the public interest. But the agenda it put forward to protect middle-class life could not simply rely on the existing mechanisms of the welfare state. The ideology would need to somehow redesign the public sector, freeing it from its dependence on existing stakeholders and using new, technology-empowered approaches to delivering services. It would have to argue forthrightly for more redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics. . . . The new ideology would not see markets as an end in themselves; instead, it would value global trade and investment to the extent that they contributed to a flourishing middle class, not just to greater aggregate national wealth.5
Frank has more to say, notably about the distortions in our thinking caused by biases engendered by classical economics thinking, but this is the gist. I interpret below the tick-list within this paragraph in my own way; Frank has not participated in its gestation and neither he nor Walter, nor anyone else for that matter, necessarily endorses any of it.
I emphasize a single principle, one that my TAI colleagues imply. This principle, I think, is central to the renewal of American government and American democracy: Government can and must act to increase American social capital or, as some call it, social trust. Existing Federal programs should be judged on the extent to which they at least do not destroy extant social capital residing in organic communal processes at local and state levels. They must, in other words, respect the principle of subsidiarity. New programs should be judged on their potential for enlarging social capital, of which we are in sore need as we face the relentlessly individuating influence of a range of new technologies. Unless we harness those technologies in the service of worthy social goals, they will likely tear us asunder, making us easy prey for both rent-seeking parasites at home and, in due course, possibly even ambitious adversaries abroad.
That said, here is the first of my ten proposals:
No. 1: Control the destructive effects of television advertising on national politics.
If plutocracy is the number one problem, it follows that finding realistic ways to curtail our out-of-control, money-distorted democratic politics is the first order of reform business. If we can’t do something about this, we won’t be able to do much about anything. Unfortunately, proposals that we just ban private money from politics outright are both unconstitutional and extremely impractical. We thus have a ferocious logical problem here: Short of a coup d’etat, how is it possible to get hundreds of corrupted politicians to vote to make themselves stop doing what they self-servingly do so well? It’s a New England problem, in other words: You can’t get there from here. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done: We can, maybe, adjust the incentive structure to make the power of money in electoral politics less useful.
All professional politicians in the United States know about the invisible 800-pound gorilla over in the corner: It’s called television. The way to win statewide and national office these days is to buy more and better television advertising than your opponents. To do that, you have to raise really huge amounts of money to buy airtime and hire the professionals who make the ads. To do that, you’ve got to devote an inordinate amount of time and staff to fundraising that would be better spent talking and listening to voters, and to thinking about and planning how to actually govern if elected.
Now, I know that there are those who disagree with this basic analysis. Some say that television advertising really doesn’t have all that much of an effect on electoral outcomes. The picture they draw is one in which these ads convey only marginal advantage, and in which the logic of a positional arms race holds pride of place. In other words, according to this argument, a typical politician will say, in effect, “I know these ads don’t do much good, but if the other guy is buying them then I have no choice but to do the same in case the race is decided at the margin.”
In a few cases political scientists make this argument, but in most cases I have observed this argument is made by people who are themselves involved in the whole process of television-laden campaign advertising. Of course they discount their own influence, because if you believe them that makes them more influential. The argument is disingenuous because a great many elections are in fact won or lost at the margin. Safe congressional districts tend not to attract much advertising efforts. But whether the Congress as a whole is Democratic or Republican after the midterm elections or presidential year elections often turns on a group of electoral outcomes decided at the margin. Sophisticated campaign consultants know this, so if they argue that their role in facilitating television advertising is not very important, they are lying. And what they never tell you is that, in recent years at least, the side that raises the most money, again, with most of it spent on television advertising, wins about 94 percent of the time.
Still others believe the problem will diminish as social media technologies break the hold of television on the airing of political opinion. If television becomes a lot less important as a part of the whole, some think, less money will flow to it, and with the political uses of social media being essentially free, this portends a great advantage to democratic and populist forces against plutocratic and corporate one. Perhaps this is all true, but I doubt it. History is littered with exaggerated prophecies of technology freeing the masses. “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable”, wrote Thomas Carlyle early in the 18th century—well, yes, but mainly no. And recent times have produced no less untethered optimism about the Internet and its accoutrements.6 Large and politically motivated concentrations of money can suborn social media, too. The power of money, if it diminishes at all at the hands of technology, will do so only slowly.
Thus, as we have already seen in some detail, the need to raise all that money raises obviously troubling questions about corruption: There are only so many places a candidate can get huge sums of money, and all those places have vested interests in the outcomes of important policy debates. It’s worth asking a disturbing question (disturbing at least in terms of democratic theory and practice): To whom is a victorious House or Senate candidate really in political debt? To the voters, or to the corporate and/or union moneymen who (94 percent of the time, remember) got the voters to vote the way they did? It’s not good when industries that contribute to political campaigns get to have their staff people essentially draft legislation pertaining to their own industry. And the campaign finance reform we’ve had in recent years, almost everyone agrees, has made things worse, not better—and that was before Citizens United, the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott.
It is clear that the whole subject of campaign finance is encumbered by a few key Supreme Court decisions. The result has been to distort analysis of this problem. For many years reformers have focused on the supply side of the problem—namely, how to get large sums of money to candidates in ways that do not hopelessly tilt the playing field. Industrious social entrepreneurs have come up with all sorts of ways to do this, from partial to full public financing and other ways besides. One problem here, among many, is that public funding has to be voluntary to be constitutional. If one side decides to forgo it, as Barack Obama did in 2008, for example, the other side has little choice but to follow. But virtually no one involved in public policy activism on campaign finance issues has given any thought lately to the demand side, where, as already noted, costs have been skyrocketing for years with no sign of abatement. Why? Because the way the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment has made it seem completely futile to pursue this angle.
That is most unfortunate, because there is a way to alleviate, if not solve, this problem. Admittedly, it is politically difficult to achieve (then again, what isn’t these days?), but at least it does not raise constitutional issues. It has two interconnected parts.
The first part is to have the Federal Communications Commission auction off rather than give away all broadcasting and bandwidth resources, not just some of them as is now the case. (After the FCC was formed in 1934 it did not give licenses away for free; this is an interesting history that reveals—what else?—plutocratic maneuvering over time par excellance.7) The media companies that acquire broadcasting licenses are not exactly pauperized; they can easily afford to pay for this relatively scarce resource, and that’s exactly what broadcasting bandwidth is. The money earned from these auctions and license renewals could then be used to subsidize non-major-party political campaigns whose candidates get on the ballot, and to help educate voters, just as happens in lots of other democratic countries. That is how the FCC was conceived from the beginning, as a steward over a publically owned asset, for the airwaves were conceived that way no less than our national forests. Read the original charter and you’ll see; and note, too, that the FCC was originally expected to hold regular public hearings to make sure it was regulating the airwaves in the public interest. As the grand old man of presidential debates, former FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, recently put it: “I believe it is unconscionable that candidates for public office have to buy access to the airwaves—which the public itself owns—to talk to the public.”8
The only way the use of airwaves auction resources in this manner can work out fairly, however, is if the time for active campaigning is constrained—this is the second part of the proposal. Almost every other Western electoral democracy does this. There is nothing anti-democratic about it. It does limit free speech in some theoretical way, but the money-dominated way things work now limits free speech, too, in very practical ways. So the FCC should require all of its clients to allow a certain minimum of airtime made available during constrained official campaign seasons for all candidates who qualify to get on the ballot.
This is not a panacea, of course. Candidates with lots of money could still buy more advertising than others during the campaign period, but those without a lot of money at least would be guaranteed a minimum of exposure to explain their proposals and views. We would not then have the strange specter, as we did in October 2012, of a debate among four minor party candidates (Constitutional Party, Libertarian Party, Justice Party and Green Party) having to run on Al-Jazeera, of all places.9 We shouldn’t try to sterilize the advantages of money in politics, which is impossible anyway; after all, even George Washington served hard cider at Mount Vernon in an effort to get people to vote for him. But we shouldn’t want money to trump absolutely everything all the time, either.
So, sell the licenses to subsidize free and fair political debate, and limit campaign seasons to curtail costs. This is a much simpler solution than those trying to limit and measure political contributions, whether of “soft money” or “hard money” and so on and so forth. Most such proposals before Citizens United, including McCain-Feingold, were inherently too complex to be workable, because there are a zillion lawyers eager to make billions of dollars finding millions of ways around them.
Besides, if the core problem is television—and it is—then the best solution is a direct one aimed at putting some boundaries around television’s functions in political campaigning. As everyone knows, you can’t affect the position of a shadow by doing things to the shadow; likewise, we can’t do much about the shadow cast by television’s power. We have to get at the source.
Can we actually do this? We can, and it would help if all those activists and their organizations who have given up on trying to control the demand side of campaign finance now concert their efforts anew in support of this reform effort.
1The GOP illustrated this bias at its recent nominating convention, and Mitt Romney turned the disposition into a farce in a statement about 47 percent of Americans supposedly being caught in a dependency syndrome; see David Brooks, “Party of Strivers”, New York Times, August 31, 2012, and Brooks, “Thurston Howell Romney”, New York Times, September 18, 2012. It is ironic that Republican/libertarian Social Darwinism dovetails so closely with the rational, value-maximizing individualist bias of the Skinnerian welfare meliorist methodology so beloved of liberals, but then Hobbes and Locke, different as they were, also agreed implicitly on primordial individualism.
2Not everyone on the right displays these particular forms of blindness. Thus Charles Murray: “Washington is in a new Gilded Age of influence peddling that dwarfs anything that has come before.” Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum, 2012), p. 294. And of course his broader thesis is precisely about growing culture/class gaps in American. I agree with his basic premise and much of his analysis. I do not agree with him on what his analysis implies for governance. Again, see our interview with Murray.
3As to the latter issue, there is an old and large literature. More recently, see Joseph Turow, The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth (Yale University Press, 2012), and the more popularly oriented Martin Lindstrom, Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Crown Business, 2008).
4A similar argument abides in Francis Fukuyama’s “Conservatives and the State”, except that Frank omitted Clay, the Whigs and their “American system.”
5Fukuyama, “Conservatives and the State.”
6The best caveat against such thinking, so far, is Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion (PublicAffairs, 2011).
7But this is very complicated, since the FCC has had its hands full with telephones as much as television for most of its history, and has in recent decades had to deal with a range of controversies over media concentration, decency issues and more besides. At first the would-be plutocrat in the room was AT&T, but after the breakup of AT&T in 1984 a host of large media companies took pride of place. To my knowledge, there is no serious, scholarly book-length history of the FCC.
8Newton N. Minow, “A Glimmer in the Vast Wasteland”, New York Times, October 3, 2012, p. A25.
9And note that these candidates were not a bunch of rank amateurs or nitwits. The four included a former governor of New Mexico, a former mayor of Salt Lake City, a former Congressman, and a medical doctor who had run for governor of Massachusetts.