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Money in politics, cont'd.

Lawrence Lessig's cri de coeur against money in politics picks, I think, exactly the right target. "This is corruption," he says. "Not the corruption of bribes, or of any other crime known to Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Instead, it is a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy. The vast majority of Americans believe money buys results in Congress (88 percent in a recent California poll). And whether that belief is true or not, the damage is the same. The democracy is feigned. A feigned democracy breeds cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement."

I've written about Lessig's argument before, and argued that money is not the fundamental force that is breaking our government. But I agree with Lessig that it is the fundamental force destroying trust in our government.

I obsess over the harm procedure and polarization do to the system, but the corrosive effect of cash makes fixing either immeasurably more difficult. Whatever actually is wrong with the system, its evident unfairness, the fact that the game is clearly rigged, is good enough for most people to give up on it. Don't like the outcomes? Blame the special interests. On some level, their presence and structural advantages absolve the rest of us of the responsibility for solving our problems and winning our arguments. It's not that we're losing, or not trying hard enough. It's that we never had a chance in the first place.

It also warps our understanding of our problems. If special interests hold this much power, then it's pretty obvious that the answer to our problems lies in beating them back. The health-care reform debate featured an almost monomaniacal focus on insurers as the cause of all policy and political problems. That was never true, and it had the effect of making the policy worse -- we let providers off the hook and gave up trying to convince people that the system itself had to be changed -- and the politics bizarre, as reformers spent most of their time hammering a group that was a lot closer to neutral than it was to opposed.

The effect is similar for politicians: It gives them an excuse for their decisions and a way to obscure their reasoning. Politicians can rail against insurers rather than arguing about whether they should be trying harder to convince Americans of things they don't already believe, like that the system shouldn't be built around employers. Since everyone knows that special interests run everything, it makes perfect sense when legislators spend their time talking about special interests.

The debate would have been very different, and arguably better, if we weren't so tuned to the power of money. But that can't happen until money is less powerful. Lessig goes further in this essay than I've seen him go before and calls for a constitutional convention that could rip corporations out of politics once and for all. His analysis requires nothing less. If what you're attacking isn't just money in politics, but the perception of money running politics, you can't content yourself with half-measures. The break needs to be sharp and loud and clean.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 5, 2010; 4:18 PM ET
 
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Comments

This is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is beyond naive to think that the rich / corporations don't already entirely run things, or to think there is any chance it won't get far worse.

Posted by: AZProgressive | February 5, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

We can't change congress until we've changed the US Supreme Court.

With their rulings that corporate and union campaign donations are a matter of free speech, nothing can be done about congress that would change the essential fact that politicians are bought off by wealthy special interests.

The ONLY route to true reform is to first IMPEACH any USSC Justice who rules that corporations are protected by free speech.

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 5, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

A clarification is important: Lessig doesn't advocate ALL corporations be excluded from the political process, only that SOME corporations be excluded. He considers funds collected by his own corporation, for example, to be "good money" and even partners with other "good" corporations to make his point.

The distinction between a religious corporation (a "church"), a worker's corporation (a "union"), a policy advocacy corporation (a "foundation" or "center"), and a manufacturing corporation (a "company") is difficult to make. Each seeks revenue, pays its CEOs, pays its employees, and has interests of its own. That's why the ACLU was so firmly on the winning side in Citizen's United: why should Citizen's United be precluded from making comments about Clinton while (for example) The Urban Institute makes similar comments about Ronald Reagan?

I agree with the blog, though, to the extent that argument about freedom of speech "gives them [politicians] an excuse for their decisions and a way to obscure their reasoning."

Posted by: rmgregory | February 5, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

We've not yet even considered the extent to which Citizens United v FEC is set to completely change American politics. I've had a hard time discussing that decision and its ramifications without sounding like a tinhat conspiracy theory nut.

I used to laugh at people who said we were become a fascist police state, but what are we to call it when we're in a permanent state of war against an amorphous enemy, while at the same time massive corporations now have unlimited license to order up any changes in our government they want. Its all very disillusioning.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 5, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

"The break needs to be sharp and loud and clean."

Perhaps. But it's very hard to see that happening. Amending the constitution? Every special interest in the world, from your local Apple Macintosh Users Group to AT&T is going to see an attempt to abridge their speech, or at least their access to be heard. The battle would be pitched and ugly, and highly unlikely to produce anything, given the high bar that is set to amend the constitution.

That being said: "The ONLY route to true reform is to first IMPEACH any USSC Justice who rules that corporations are protected by free speech."

Do you think there is any chance of that, at all, really? Seriously? Do you think that's really a good idea? What about when there are Republican majorities in the house and senate at they decide they want to impeach everyone to the left of Clarence Thomas?

How would this fly? -- "The ONLY route to true reform is to first IMPEACH any USSC Justice who rules that abortions are protected by a 'right to privacy'".

I mean, I can understand why you'd disagree with a decision treating a corporation as an entity with free speech rights, but come on. Either you play by the rules when you lose, or there are no rules.

Which, BTW, I think the Republicans will learn when they are in power again: if you bend the rules at the edges, they will stay bent, and when the sides switch, everything you did to thew Democrats will be done unto you. President Scott Brown will have a blanket hold put on all his nominees, first day in office.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 5, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

I see this as a chicken and the egg scenario: citizens not being engaged leaves the politicians to listen to those with the money and interest to exercise their voices. If time=money, then your choice to focus on doing what will afford you that flat-panel TV, rather than actually learning about the people who will govern your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness... well, you get what you pay for.

I challenge anyone on this site to post the names of their local council/town/borough members without looking them up on the net first.

Posted by: Jaycal | February 5, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

"but what are we to call it when we're in a permanent state of war against an amorphous enemy"

Well, first of all, we've always been at war with Eurasia.

"while at the same time massive corporations now have unlimited license to order up any changes in our government they want"

We shall see. Simply put, the ability to advocate on an issue without limit does not necessarily lead to "ordering up any changes" they want. They can saturate the airwaves with their opinions, but that doesn't not necessarily win the day. Obama has had the bully pulpit on healthcare reform and cap and trade. Plenty of free media saturation. Have they happened, yet?

I think too much advocacy can actually hurt candidates. If McDonald's keeps pushing Mayor McCheese for president, I'm going to wonder exactly what dog McDonald's has in this fight (or in its burgers).

If Goldman-Sachs keeps advertising in support of Chris Dodd for President, maybe folks might wonder exactly what kind of return they are expecting on that investment?

I've heard a few political consultants discuss the opening of the floodgates, and they aren't exactly enthused. And not because they don't think that money=speech. It's because they think it'll make it harder to control the message, make it harder to stay on point, make it easier for overzealous 3rd parties to put their candidates in a difficult-to-explain positions, or give their candidates things that, though they have no real control over them, they have to apologize for.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 5, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

The problem with your argument Kevin_Willis is that you're an intelligent person who uses critical thinking skills. What percentage of your fellow citizens would we say the same for?

Listen, marketing works. Advertising works. People see things enough times on TV and subconsciously ingest them, and any ability to govern or moderate corporations from opening the floodgates to make society in their own image has been totally burned to the ground by this ruling.

As I understand it, corporations still cannot directly give unlimited funds to a candidate. So what u say is correct that when ExxonMobil decides to help President Brown as you say when re-election, they'll be able to just relentlessly attack his counterpart in any way they like, and spend billions to do so.

And this isnt like a law that can be changed, its handed down to us from a 5-4 ruling of unelected judges. What a country.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 5, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

This really isnt partisan either. I mean, GE stands to benefit greatly from cap and trade legislation passing. Do I think Jeff Immelt should be able to run $100M of attack ads on say, Sarah Palin in 2012 for not believing in global warming or whatever they say about her in order to help Obama win? Not on your life.

That is a total subversion of the normal workings of a democracy, and its frightening to think where this is all going to lead.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 5, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

While I share some of Prof. Lessig's concerns, I really question his analysis given his echoing of invalid right-wing criticism of Obama, including bank bail outs, a "pork-filled" stimulus (is there anything of significance in there he can specifically complain about?), and blaming the fact that the government has not fundamentally been overhauled by one man.

I don't think campaign finance reform is a panacea by any means. I hope Prof. Lessig looks at a number of factors, including the media, misinformation, the greed of constituents, and the constituent powers of interest groups when considering how to improve the US political system.

Posted by: MPaulGriffith | February 5, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

While I share some of Prof. Lessig's concerns, I really question his analysis given his echoing of invalid right-wing criticism of Obama, including bank bail outs, a "pork-filled" stimulus (is there anything of significance in there he can specifically complain about?), and blaming the fact that the government has not fundamentally been overhauled by one man.

I don't think campaign finance reform is a panacea by any means. I hope Prof. Lessig looks at a number of factors, including the media, misinformation, the greed of constituents, and the constituent powers of interest groups when considering how to improve the US political system.

Posted by: MPaulGriffith | February 5, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Thanks to Ezra for covering Dr. Lessig's appeal. As to MPaulGriffith's concerns about Lessig's incorporation of right-wing criticisms: I think Dr. Lessig believes, rightly, that what he proposes will not be successful if it only receives support from the left. Thus, he must speak to their concerns as well as ours. Furthermore, it is important to focus on concrete goals and what would be achieved by them, rather than the ideological motivations of potential allies and opponents.

Some additional links for those who want to learn more:
http://lessig.org/content/av/
http://www.fixcongressfirst.org/
http://change-congress.org/who/

Posted by: Shmoe1 | February 5, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

From the moment government's in a position to take a million dollars from you, any influence that costs you only $999,999 is a bargain.

The problem isn't money in politics -- it's politics in money.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 6, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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