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.
February 5, 2010; 4:18 PM ET
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