“Our democracy is not supposed to be a tug of war between a couple of billionaires on the left and a couple of billionaires on the right,”
“Our democracy is not supposed to be a tug of war between a couple of billionaires on the left and a couple of billionaires on the right.”
Yes, unfortunately, it is.
As the charts below show, the billionaire class writes big checks to candidates and partisan campaign committees. Why? Because they want access to the politicians, once in office, to influence both the legislative agendas and the actual text of laws.
While we have a roughly and anachronistically speaking a “one man, one vote” democracy for elections, that doesn’t mean the output of our republican system of government is representative of the will of the people, because most people don’t have equal access to the candidates and office holders.
[Democrat and Republican politicians should move toward the policy middle ground to win stable majorities….] This advice has one crucial shortcoming, Mr. Fiorina acknowledges: “They can’t do it.” One reason has to do with money. “The donors are most ideological of all,” he says. In the 1970s and ’80s, “a big majority of contributions to congressional races came from individual contributions within your district, and now the money is coming from outside. Texas is an ATM for Republicans, California and Manhattan for Democrats.”
He adds that “30 years ago, an Ohioan Republican and an Oregon Republican would have faced very different primary electorates that run different kinds of races. Now, you look at their campaigns—they’re going to be the same. They’re getting their money from the same kinds of people.” The Republican in Oregon, a more liberal state, is likely to prove unelectable. For this problem there is probably no remedy. “The only thing I can see mattering would be unconstitutional,” Mr. Fiorina says—to wit, a law requiring that “all campaign contributions have to come from within the jurisdiction of the race being held.” – WSJ 1/6-7/18, p. A9, emphasis added.
Morris Fiorina, Stanford U. Political Scientists, discussing the implications of the “unstable majorities” in our electoral system, in the WSJ.
His diagnosis is correct that the respective parties are more extreme than the plurality of American voters, because their respective donor bases drive candidates to extremes, even if the majority of the electorate is not on-board for their policy positions. While the majority of Americans are for some form of gun control, a similar majority of Americans are against any efforts to ban guns, for example. Ditto abortion.
If we could trust our elites, then we can all probably agree that leaking is bad. The problem is we cannot trust our elites and the institutions of our democratic society.
Leaks hurt the powers that be, who run our government. Leaks can help our enemies, who wish us ill or harm. Regardless of the leaker’s intentions, the leaked information can take on a life of its own with unintended (positive or negative) consequences.
In my lifetime there have been several cases that illustrate the tension between the legitimate right of a state to maintain secrets in a dangerous world and that same democratic state’s citizens’ rights to transparency into what their agents are doing. A short-list appears at the bottom of this post.
The John Raines’ obituary in the 11/19/17 New York Times describes one such leak, the leakers’ intentions, and the ramifications. John Raines, professor at Temple University, anti-Vietnam war activist, burglar, disseminator of secret information, and a central actor in revealing the falsity of our nation’s mid-century inherent trust in government institutions.
A short list of leaks that demonstrate the tension between secrecy and democracy.
(1971) Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers – a Pentagon-sponsored secret history of the US involvement in the Vietnam war, that made clear US policy makers had been lying to the American public for years.
(1971) Unnamed Anti-war Burglars who broke into a suburban Philadelphia FBI office, copied the files on the FBI’s domestic spying efforts, and revealed the COINTELPRO program that led to the US Senate Church Committee on Foreign and Military Espionage, exposed the J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI’s dirty tricks campaign against US civil rights and anti-war groups and bungling spy efforts, such as colluding with US mafia figures to hire hit men to assassinate Fidel Castro.
(1972) Watergate. “Deep Throat“, who turned out to be an Deputy Director of the FBI, leaking investigative information to the Washington Post reports Woodward and Bernstein, to further the investigation of President Richard Nixon’s White House “Plumbers” dirty tricks and illegal slush fund activities.
(1996) Iran-Contra affair was revealed by foreign and domestic leaking of information about the Reagan administration’s secretly transfer of arms for cash with our sworn enemies the Iranians to fund their illegal efforts to support the US-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
(2003) Seymour Hersch’s articles on US military prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib, resulting in the exposure of unethical and illegal practices by US military and intelligence agency operatives on our “war on terror”.
(2005) Warrantless Wiretapes – a subversion of our Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures – was revealed by a leaker, who later turned out to be a Justice Dept. official.
(2011) Chelsea Manning released thousands of documents to Wikileaks, that documented a far higher level of civilian casualties in the war than the Pentagon was acknowledging publicly. This included aerial footage of a US military missile strike and killing of a TV news crew. Deaths the Pentagon had previously denied.
(2013) Edward Snowden’s leaking National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program information, revealing the breadth of US intelligence agency foreign and domestic electronic eavesdropping.
“With repeated lies, the brain becomes less and less sensitive to dishonesty, supporting ever larger acts of dishonesty. “
The state of our political discourse has been getting worse for years, but the Trump administration brought our nation’s political discourse to a new low, father from what the “community of inquirers agrees to be true.”
Here are three data points to help you assess the level of risk to our democracy in the current disregard for the truth.
This isn’t new, but a larger trend in western liberal democracies. Politicians have long used appeals to voter emotions to short-circuit voter rationality. Perhaps it is just the brazenness with which they admit to doing this that is shocking.
The state of our nation demands a new way of thinking about democracy. I’m less interested in why the Democrats lost this election than to understand how we have come to such a bifurcated society.
A casual morning’s coffee reflection suggests a sobering list of structural problems, related but distinct, and each requiring a diagnosis and resolution.
We seemingly lack an agreed upon collective identity as a nation, that contains and imposes normative standards on our sub-group conflicts. Dewey’s The Public and It’s Problems (1927), assumed the boundary conditions of the larger “public” body, and focused his analysis on how we bring the rich, local, and contextual mutual regard of the small town to a great nation of 119 million. In 2017, we are roughly three times that size (323 million).
The “central tendency” of agreed upon truth that largely held in the 20th century is now gone. By “truth” I mean agreement on the laws of the physical and social worlds — the facts — against which, strategies and tactics to change the facts could be debated (here I am using a loose view of Pierce and Dewey’s Pragmatist definition of truth is what inquirers agree is true at any moment in time). Media elites – national and major city newspapers and post-war broadcast media – defined a generally shared narrow spectrum of what they agreed was the “truth”. Importantly, the media elites actively managed this agreed upon definition of truth and the boundaries of who could contest their agreed “truth.” Yeah, I know there are all sorts of problems with the above: (i) Is the Pragmatists’ definition of inquirers’ truth valid (ii) did the 20th century media elites really hold a central tendency of truth; (iii) if so, was that central tendency truth unbiased and representative of the entire society? (I think we all know the answer to this one). While the central tendency of the conversation was distorted, the normative impulse to have a single conversation was important. Today, groups seem to be not just talking past one another but engaging in increasingly separate, intra-group optimized conversations. Persuasion through rhetoric, logic and facts are no longer considered necessary (remember “truthiness” and now look at Trump, Kelly Anne Conway and climate change deniers). There was a lower level of “talking past each other” than appears to be the case today. The question is, was this true? Is a single conversation good? Is it possible to have a single conversation without the distortion of power?
We don’t know why people vote the way they do. People don’t vote their economic self-interest. So what motivates them? If they are seeking to optimize something (but see below) what are they seeking to optimize? – Religious belief, social morality, collective identity, family and small group cohesion, …?
Are our citizens rational? Even if they wanted to and claim to, can people calculate what is optimal for themselves? Behavioral Economics suggests that we are not; that we cannot calculate risk; that we cannot think strategically for more than a few minutes at a time.
Can we put the genie back in the bottle? Now that we are in this state of discourse and democracy highly corroded by market logic, can we ever go back to a stronger balancing assertion of social and political logic and power?
My Reading List
I have a few books on my Q1-2017 Reading List. What’s yours?
Frank argues that the Democratic party―once “the Party of the People”―now caters to the interests of a “professional managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers.
David Brooks’ comments on the current state of American elites here. This quote says its all:
Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this. (emphasis added)
We may not like the quaint paternalism associated with past elites, but implicit in Brooks’ contrast with today’s elite attitudes, paternalism has been replaced by a pure market logic of self-interest.
Daniel Kahnemann. Thinking Fast and Slow. And for those who don’t want to read the must read opus, Michael Lewis’ recent biography and summary of Kahneman’s and his partner, Tversky’s work (The Undoing Project).
There is growing data suggesting the political parties are stratifying along suburban-urban, white-ethnic, working class-more affluent, and low density population-high density population spectra.
At the Congressional district level, this barbell effect is quite clear. After the 2014 Congressional elections, the Congress bulged on two ends of the spectra.
Diversity & Education Levels and Party
Figure 1 shows the high correlation between education levels, level of minorities, and party alignment.
Population Density and Party
Figure 2 compares two time periods’ correlations of population density and party affiliation. In 1952, population density did not correlate with party preference. By 2012, population density (i.e., urban vs. suburban or exurban) strongly correlated with party preference.
Racial and Ethnic Diversity
The greatest racial and ethnic diversity exists on the coasts (see Figure 3) and, for the most part, in urban or high population density areas.
But the rate of change is greatest in heretofore non-diverse areas of the country – upstate New York, and the upper Great Plains (see Figure 4).
Identity, as academics define it, falls into two broad categories: “achieved” identity derived from personal effort, and “ascribed” identity based on innate characteristics.
Everyone has both, but people tend to be most attached to their “best” identity — the one that offers the most social status or privileges. Successful professionals, for example, often define their identities primarily through their careers.
For generations, working-class whites were doubly blessed: They enjoyed privileged status based on race, as well as the fruits of broad economic growth.
White people’s officially privileged status waned over the latter half of the 20th century with the demise of discriminatory practices in, say, university admissions. But rising wages, an expanding social safety net and new educational opportunities helped offset that. Most white adults were wealthier and more successful than their parents, and confident that their children would do better still.
That feeling of success may have provided a sort of identity in itself.
But as Western manufacturing and industry have declined, taking many working-class towns with them, parents and grandparents have found that the opportunities they once had are unavailable to the next generation.
That creates an identity vacuum to be filled.
“For someone who is lower income or lower class,” Professor Kaufmann explained, “you’re going to get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity or the nation than you would out of any sort of achieved identity.”
Focusing on lost identities rather than lost livelihoods helps answer one of the most puzzling questions about the link between economic stress and the rise of nationalist politics: why it is flowing from the middle and working classes, and not the very poor.
While globalization and free trade have widened economic inequality and deeply wounded many working-class communities, data suggests that this year’s political turmoil is not merely a backlash to that real pain.
… As American democracy evolved, multiple balance wheels and self-correcting mechanisms were put in place that encouraged this. They promoted stability, but they also leave space for intervention and new ideas, reform and change.
These self-correcting mechanisms are such familiar features of politics as the running competition for power between the two political parties, the scrutiny by the press and reform critics, the natural tension inherent in the coequal branches of government, the sober monitor imposed by law and the Constitution, the political energies that arise naturally from free people when they organize themselves for collective expression. People are counting on these corrective mechanisms to assert themselves again, as they usually have in the past.
The most troubling proposition of this book is that the self-correcting mechanisms of politics are no longer working. Most of them are still in place and functioning but, for the most part, do not produce the expected results. Some of the mechanisms have disappeared entirely. Some are atrophied or blocked by new circumstances. Some have become so warped and disfigured that they now concretely aggravate the imbalance of power between the many and the few.
That breakdown describes a democratic problem in its bleakest dimensions: instead of a politics that leads the society sooner or later to confront its problems, American politics has developed new ways to hide from them.
The consequences of democratic failure are enormous for the country, not simply because important public matters are neglected, but because America won’t work as a society if the civic faith is lost. …
Jonathan Rauch’s July 2016 Atlantic Magazine article argues for the lubricating role of strong political party machines to keep the legislative system working and that the good government reforms of the 1960s and 1970s have had unintended consequences.
This challenged several assumptions I held and is worth a serious read.
Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal—both in campaigns and in the government itself.
Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.
The disorder has other causes, too: developments such as ideological polarization, the rise of social media, and the radicalization of the Republican base. But chaos syndrome compounds the effects of those developments, by impeding the task of organizing to counteract them. Insurgencies in presidential races and on Capitol Hill are nothing new, and they are not necessarily bad, as long as the governing process can accommodate them. Years before the Senate had to cope with Ted Cruz, it had to cope with Jesse Helms. The difference is that Cruz shut down the government, which Helms could not have done had he even imagined trying.