As the country endures yet another ‘most expensive election ever’, we would do well to remember that no matter what political ideology any candidate claims, nearly all who enter office will owe their job and their fealty to special interests. It is these big-money interests which our government now serves and will continue to serve regardless of which party wins in November. Certainly the election’s outcome might determine how much relative power specific types of special interests wield in Washington (i.e. unions, corporations, lawyers, Wall St, etc.), but that distinction will matter little to constituents languishing under a system still heavily rigged against them.
The good news is that an increasing number of voters are not only aware of this problem, but also care deeply about it. A recent Gallup poll revealed that the only issue voters care about more than corruption is creating jobs. However, the poll also noted that while corruption is a major concern, it is unlikely to be much of a determinant in the way people vote. No reason is given, but most likely voters recognize that any remedy probably won’t come from the same special interest-funded candidates (in both parties) who created this problem in the first place. Lacking a way to impact the issue come election time, voters simply begrudgingly ignore it.
In many ways, both the Tea Party and Occupy movements sprang from the frustration people across the political spectrum feel from this inability to affect real change via their vote. Both groups, with little else in common, have each attempted to bypass a system rigged against candidates whose campaigns are not heavily funded by special interest money. In the current election however, media attention is primarily devoted to the presidential horse race, and so both movements struggle to recapture earlier successes. A perfect illustration of this came with the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Wall Street. After barely registering on the radar of most major media outlets, it was almost immediately overshadowed by Mitt Romney’s “47%” comments.
There is one way built into our system for the people to circumvent the government should it become corrupted: A constitutional amendment. Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, an amendment has become the favored solution of most reformers outside the political establishment, as well as numerous Democratic officeholders & luminaries within. The appeal lies primarily in an amendment’s ability to circumvent the courts’ proclivity to make free speech rights for special interests paramount over a constituent’s right to be genuinely & honestly represented by his or her government.
But while an amendment makes sense on one hand, and it is certainly possible one might ultimately be necessary to circumvent the courts, virtually all of the language currently being proposed would fail to meet the desired objective. Most versions being bandied about would either leave the problem of systemic corruption largely unsolved, or would have virtually no chance of gaining the broad support necessary to be adopted. Some of the most popular versions unfortunately manage the dubious distinction of accomplishing both.
Amendments merely overturning Citizens United would simply return campaign finance to the 1990’s. Things weren’t really any less corrupt then; they just were more tightly controlled and easily hidden from public scrutiny. Incumbents actually aren’t all that crazy about how decentralized campaigns have become, so bringing the money back into the fold would likely suit them just fine. In the end, overturning Citizens United alone would do little to encourage competitive elections or reduce systemic corruption.
Amendments attempting to go further and actually end corporate personhood and/or allow political spending to be regulated would be relentlessly attacked by conservative-leaning special interests in such a way as to likely crater support among conservative voters. Despite amendment proponents’ claims to understand the need for solutions agreeable to people across the political spectrum, a good deal of the language currently offered would be vulnerable to attacks depicting an unscrupulous Congress rigging elections in their own favor. Thus, any amendment plausibly seen as giving Congress the power to regulate political speech would likely be un-passable due to lack of conservative support.
Of course these attacks won’t come so long as reformers continue to spend countless hours just trying to get a doomed effort off the ground. Why attack when so many current proposals make the job of undermining potential conservative support for ending systemic corruption that much easier? The more reformers persist in partisan solutions and/or aligning themselves solely with Democratic politicians, the more likely conservatives are to be convinced this issue is simply a liberal ploy to consolidate power.
Corruption is abhorred by all sides, so this is about as nonpartisan an issue as you’ll likely ever find, yet all sides continue to talk past one another and offer solutions the other side is unlikely to support. Widespread disgust with corruption is too often conflated with widespread support for remedies favored by partisans on one side or the other.
In the end, nothing improves until we set aside our knives and shelve all other disagreements long enough to cooperate on this one issue. Given how it underpins virtually every other single issue of importance, finding motivation to fix the broken system which stymies us all at every turn shouldn’t be as difficult a task as it has been up to this point.
We needn’t resolve any other issue right now, but we must un-rig the system so the contest actually means something again.
Pro sports leagues crack down on gambling and allegations of game-fixing with a ferocity they reserve for no other single issue. They know that if fans believe the contests to be fixed, it is no longer a sport, but rather entertainment alone. Our government could be like the NFL, the gold standard to which others aspire. Instead, it is more like pro wrestling, where only the most gullible believe things aren’t completely rigged. If we un-rig the system, we restore trust in the process and the belief that our votes actually count for something.
Elections do still matter – a little – and we should all get out and vote on November 6th. However, no matter which party takes control in January, special interests will still be calling the shots. This is not a partisan problem, and it won’t be fixed by a partisan solution. The time must come when all sides realize that only by working cooperatively can we end the systemic corruption dragging us all down together. How much more evidence is needed?