Politics is a dirty business. Nothing new there. A prime example of this is the current Senate debate on campaign finance reform. On the one side, ostensibly you have a bunch of right-minded civil servants out to rid “big money” from political campaigns so that the voice of democracy can speak loud and clear on the issues of the day. The claim is that big business and wealthy private interests drown out the voices of minorities in the political debate.
This argument is not very hard to follow: money buys advertisements, flyers, web sites, bumper stickers, phone calls and quite probably the politicians themselves. Whichever candidate has the most money can reach more potential voters. This is a far cry from the democratic ideal of “one man, one vote.” In addition, discussion of the issues takes a back seat to mudslinging ad campaigns and image battles.
Unsurprisingly, the public becomes more and more removed from the issues at stake since everyone is afraid of saying anything at all policy-wise for fear of alienating potential voters. At the same time the voter has a tendency to lose interest in the process. The only things that differentiate the candidates seem to be their faces, character appeal, and which ticket they are running on, Republican or Democrat. Things are a little more complex that that, but this characterization comes close enough for present purposes.
On the other side of the debate on campaign finance reform is a horde of obviously self-interested politicians who do not want to lose the money they are pocketing and are somewhat scared at what could happen if (God forbid) debates became more fundamentally based on ideas. They are using the First Amendment as a defense of their contributors, claiming that donations of money are expressions of support and that it is basically unconstitutional to limit this kind of expression in any way shape or form.
Although their motives are questionable, one has to admit that they do have a point. Why can’t I donate any amount of money to anyone I want to in support of a cause? (Remember that this is not technically bribery, since no favors are actually asked for in return.) Politicians, although perhaps marginally less honest, are no different from the rest of us. Their right to receive money is as good as anyone else’s, provided they are not using this money to favor special interests.
This uniquely American practice of lobbying is rather cynically viewed by other countries, one might add. After all, if a politician wishes to continue receiving the generous contributions of his benefactors, and thus continue to be reelected, he had better find out what they want from him. And therein lies the crux of the problem: it is because politicians have the power to give certain industries tax breaks, certain people extra incentives, in other words certain additional rights to some at the expense of the public coffers that everyone is so interested in changing the rules of the game. It is because the politician has this unique power to change the way in which society functions that he is so coveted by special interests. That’s precisely the point, right? After all, that’s the politician’s job. Perhaps…
So, on the one side you have mostly Democrats, the party of minorities, victims, disgruntled college professors, communists and guilty white people gunning for a limitation of campaign contributions. These minorities don’t have too much money but together they have a lot of votes and it is mostly in the Democratic Party’s electoral interest to keep money out of politics. On the other, you have mostly Republicans, the party of the rich white conservative Christians, but also bigots, fundamentalist fascists, gun-happy militaristic nuts and a lot of principled constitutionalists too afraid to become libertarians.
Because the United States is what it is, these people have a lot of money and are marginally more fanatic about keeping the status quo and so they oppose the campaign finance reform that would probably hurt their electoral chances. (I have never heard traditional Republicans make such a spirited defense of the First Amendment…) The issue of campaign finance though, has turned the House and the Senate into a huge bipartisan mess because after all, there are a lot of rich influential Democrats behind a lot of seats in both Houses and principled Republicans who understand the problems arising from soft money.
It seems to me that whatever happens to the current proposals going back and forth between the House, the Senate and the White House, there isn’t going to be much difference in the basic dynamic of the problem. After all, one suspects that since current campaign finance laws are more than likely being circumvented by more or less legal channels, that politicians and contributors’ money will find a way to make their interests coincide regardless of the safeguards in place. (In Europe where any sniff of lobbying is considered illegal, it is a fairly well known fact that politicians are still heavily bribed as evidenced by the scandals that break out every few years, wreaking havoc with governments.)
I started exposing this dynamic a little before; that is, the reason why politicians are the target of the lobbying is that they have the power to do certain things money by itself cannot achieve. Remove this power to discriminate economically and morally between different classes of citizens and enterprises and suddenly there is no point in investing money into politics anymore. Even if you admit that this is a pretty good solution, this doesn’t seem very likely or realistic though does it? After all, who controls the political process by which things get done? The politicians. Why would the politician ever want to limit his own power (and the cash flow this power generates)?
Some 200 years ago, the founders of this country understood that the only way to inhibit discrimination and infringement on personal liberty was to draw up a constitution, a constitution that still serves as the supreme law of the land today. The Constitution limits the power of the government to some fairly specific functions, functions that have been far exceeded by the federal behemoth we have today. To return to those initial functions won’t solve everything, our constitution isn’t perfectly adapted to the world of today, but reducing government would be a good first step.
Of course, the individual politician by nature has a vested interest in enhancing his power and the politicians as a class naturally seek power. This power can only be realized through government. The politician class is essentially a parasitic one that survives by infringing the liberties of groups or of all in favor of himself or of the special interests that pay him. Enough said, whatever your political convictions, it is important to understand the dynamics of politics and of why the politician is always representing himself first and foremost.
I started this article by saying that politics is a dirty business. Sometimes it is a necessary business, but to be fooled by the political process is a cardinal sin when you know that what is being done is rarely or only coincidentally done for you. Sometimes it is very much in the politician’s interest to listen to his constituency, but that interest can often quickly be outweighed by other considerations whether they arise from towing the party line, personal considerations, or monetary gain. The damage done by a self-seeking politician may never be corrected even when the politician has been ousted.
The most obvious example of this is the myriad of tax breaks offered to certain industries for some specious reason ten or twenty years that are never repealed because the fear of incurring the wrath of a special interest is more than the fear of whatever the public outcry could be. And therein lies the problem, politics and bureaucracy are self-perpetuating institutions that can only really grow bigger left to their own devices. >From mere civil servants, politicians discretely become masters and rulers of the people they set out to help.
Limiting government may be the greatest challenge of the upcoming century, which is why I wanted to take the opportunity to recommend that you take a closer look at candidates in upcoming elections. Check off the none of the above box instead of giving a “mandate” to a politician you only see as a lesser of two evils because he will take that vote and wave it around as evidence that you will endorse everything he does.
Also check out third party candidates, (the Natural Law Party, the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party are all interested in reducing government, not increasing it) small parties aren’t yet involved in the machinery of political power.