Beyond “Money in Politics”

Campaign finance reform isn't enough, writes Gabriel Pierre. Instead the left needs to go much deeper

Bought and paid for
image via Flickr

(The following is based on a presentation at the “Democracy and the 1%” public forum in Iowa City, IA.)

The question of getting “big money out of politics” is an important one. In recognizing the deformative effect corporate influence has on what we call our democracy, it’s a form of recognizing the class struggle – the understanding that some parts of society have opposing interests to others, and that the minority at the top will use their commanding influence to their own benefit. Certainly it was one of the central themes of the Occupy movement – the 99% against the 1%.

That being said, I often struggle to understand the exaggerated importance given to campaign finance reform. There’s Move to Amend, which exists to promote a constitutional amendment reversing corporate personhood and limit campaign spending. Represent.Us, a lash-up between liberals, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the DC Tea Party, has shown up recently with some slick ads online, calling for an American Anti-Corruption Act to crack down on lobbyists and, again, campaign spending.

I’m not saying campaign finance or lobbying reform is bad or that it wouldn’t help us at all, but the transformative effects touted by organizations like Move to Amend and Represent.Us is totally unfounded. It starts from a false premise – that if we restrict big corporations’ ability to buy elections or legally bribe elected officials, we’ll open up space for politicians to be more representative to their voters. But the people who would be doing the regulating are the very same people who serve the ruling class of this country – the capitalist class, the 1%. This is why the Federal Elections Commission is such a toothless body. Our national politics were dominated by corporate interests before the 2010 Citizens United ruling. With strict financing and lobbying laws, these interests would turn their attention to court challenges, watering down enforcement or simply flouting the law altogether. Then there are the other, more traditional mechanisms of ruling class control.

They would still have their parties, the Democrats and Republicans. They would still have control over the economy, able to threaten capital flight in the face of any reforms that threaten their interests. Entire countries have been brought to their knees this way.

And of course we would still have a situation where ninety percent of American media is owned by just six companies – GE, Disney, News Corp of Fox News fame, Viacom, Time-Warner (think CNN) and CBS. With or without clean election reform, that’s a powerful arsenal. And then there is the most entrenched obstacle of all: the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution is highly contradictory, which we should expect from a product of the era of bourgeois-democratic revolutions… They successfully overthrew one system of minority rule, mobilizing broad masses to do that, but placed another system of minority rule in its place. The Constitution does contain a number of essential democratic elements, it is at the core an undemocratic document. Quite explicitly, it was designed to put roadblocks and hurdles between the majority – women, slaves, American Indians and propertyless white men – and the ruling minority of early industrial capitalists and plantation owners.

For the left wing of the American Revolution, a republic was only worth its name in as much as it was a republic based on liberty and equality. They were able to win the Bill of Rights, but weren’t strong enough to scrap it altogether and start over. Since then, every democratic right from the abolition of chattel slavery to women’s suffrage has had to be tenaciously fought for by mass movements, not granted from above.

The framers purposefully crafted the Constitution to frustrate the popular will – “democracy” was a term of disparagement for most of our country’s history, equated with mob rule. Its checks and balances exist to subvert democracy. We have so-called “states’ rights” used as a cudgel against women, workers and people of color while local government is disempowered. 40 states don’t even grant their municipalities home rule.

We have a separate executive branch given near-monarchial powers: head of state, chief administrator, military Commander in Chief, unbeholden to the legislature. Veto power over legislation. Chosen by the Electoral College, not the popular vote, as anyone who remembers the 2000 election will remember.

The President also appoints lifetime members of the Supreme Court – John Stewart once said that their only oversight is from the “icy scythe of death.” SCOTUS and the court system in general are given broad reach to block laws that threaten propertied interests.

That leaves Congress as the most democratic governmental branch, which is really saying something. We often talk about the number of millionaires in Congress – a majority as of last year – or their total demographic imbalance with the American population, or gerrymandering. All good points. But the problems go deeper than that.

Bicameralism by its very nature runs counter to the democratic spirit. We have a Senate that was created specifically as an obstacle to the will of the people; two Senators for every state, slanting the balance of power in favor of smaller, more rural, typically more conservative regions. The name itself is an invocation of the Roman Senate, the negation of Athens.

Every state except Nebraska has a bicameral legislature. Every state, plus the federal government, uses a “winner takes all” election system – probably the most obvious sign of our democratic deficit today. Winner takes all dilutes politics, breeds lesser-evilism and effectively disenfranchises tens of millions. In fact fifty-eight percent of Americans believe a third party is necessary, showing that feelings of alienation from the political process run deep.

There is no silver bullet here. Single-issue campaigns aren’t fit for purpose. They limit themselves to one core reform in the name of being broad enough to attract as many people as possible in the short term, but this robs them of the perspective needed to actually develop and sustain a mass movement. We need a holistic approach – anything less is lying to ourselves, lying to those we say we want to empower. In the Marxist tradition we call this a democratic-republican program.

Throughout the history of the working class movement, Marxists have always stressed the question of democracy. Extreme democracy is the only way we believe the working class, the majority class in our society, can exercise power – that is the lesson from the Paris Commune of 1871, the St. Louis Commune of 1877, the 1919 Seattle General Strike and the early years of the Russian Revolution.

This isn’t an abstract question, nor is it separated from economic issues. Most of the socialist left, in fact the non-socialist left too, has forgotten this. But in fact the two, political and economic, are inseparable. That is why we need a movement that pushes through the boundaries of formal democracy, a movement that fights to make democracy a living, breathing process instead of what Marx called “choosing every few years which particular members of the exploiting and oppressing classes will exploit and oppress us.”

So what form would this democratic-republican program take? By no means am I trying here to lay out a complete blueprint, but there are some general guidelines to work from. Probably the most immediate problem is the electoral system.

Proportional representation isn’t a panacea, but it deserves to be a high campaigning priority. You go to the polls, you vote, and the number of seats a party gets in the legislature corresponds to its actual level of support – so if the Greens or the Socialists or, God forbid, the Libertarians get ten percent of the vote they get roughly ten percent of the seats, and so on. That would allow left-wing forces to better fight campaigns where you vote for ideas, for policy, not personalities.

The governmental bureaucracy, which wields a great deal of official and unofficial power, would need to be streamlined and have its high officials subject to the elective principle. In the states, the balance of power would slant toward local control.

Popular militias in place of the police forces and standing army, which Patriot agitator Mercy Otis Warren called “the bane of liberty and the nurturer of vice.” The power of the capitalist state boils down to its special armed bodies of men – we must empower people to collectively organize our own safety. The suffocating power of mass surveillance, anti-union laws and so-called free speech zones must be brought to an end as well.

Beyond that, we would need root-and-branch overhaul of the Constitution. There is abolishing the Senate and the office of the presidency.

Tossing out the Electoral College is a worthwhile interim step here. Annual elections for Congress, the right to recall representatives and payment limited to the average worker’s wage in the constituency – all measures to hold elected representatives close to those they’re supposed to represent.

Of course, all of this is a tall order. The program of republican democracy would require a socialist revolution – or a Third Continental Congress, if you will – to fulfill completely. But if we think through the question of democracy to its logical end, if we are serious about having a government “of, by and for the people”, it’s hard not to draw a revolutionary conclusion. It falls to the working class, which by its nature is the only consistently revolutionary class in society, to fight the battle of democracy to its end.


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