PEOPLE-IN / MONEY OUT
A Modern Political Version of the David & Goliath Tale
Peter Bearse, Ph.D.
There is a political version of the old David vs. Goliath tale simmering just below the surface of the 2014 congressional election season. Two projects are attempting to influence select congressional, mid-term election races. They are doing so in very different ways. One focuses on people; the other, on money. Thus, notwithstanding an effort to seek collaboration, the projects are competitive.i How this competition evolves and who wins could portend the future of democracy in America. At the risk of putting myself in the same competitive category as a Harvard professor [Heaven forbid!], the face-off is between myself and Prof. Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law School; hereafter referenced as LL; myself, as PB.
First, with reference to LL and the strong arms of his mission: Rootstrikers [www.rootstrikers.com] and the Mayday Fund. His efforts can best be seen in the context of the failure of campaign finance reform[CFR]. Consider most specifically the failure of McCain-Feingold, the last comprehensive attempt to get enough control over campaign finance through law and regulation to remove both the reality and appearance of political corruption. LL seeks to get big, private donors out of politics and to substitute campaigns financed by small donors supplemented in large part by Uncle Sam (public financing). The “legislative reform” centerpiece of his program is that of a companion organization, a project of Rootstrikers, “Reform.To”. It is the American Anti-Corruption Act [ACA] to effect “Fundamental lobbying reform, and provide incentives for small dollar funded campaigns”. The list of 27 “Supporters” of the Act includes only one U.S. Rep. [Richard Nolan (D, MN 8)]. The rest, all candidates for Congress, are mostly Democrats but for a few independents plus a Libertarian and a Green Party candidate.
“Reform.To” supplements the centerpiece with four other legislative initiatives. LL claims that each would “effect fundamental reform of the corrupting influence of big money....”
Government By the People Act: To reform the financing of Congressional elections by broadening participation by small dollar donors, and for other purposes, in two main parts: Subtitle A – “Refundable tax credit for congressional House campaign contributions”, and Subtitle B – “Voucher Pilot Program”. It has a large number of sponsors, all Democrats.
Fair Elections Now Act: Amends the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. This also has a large number of sponsors, all Democrats. There are both House and Senate versions.
Citizen Involvement in Campaigns Act: Provides for tax credits and deductions for small contributions to campaigns. Rep. Thos. Petri (R, WI) is the prime sponsor. Reform.To cites 21 “supporters,” including some candidates for Congress, but no cosponsors among other Members of Congress [MoC's] .
Taxation Only With Representation Act: Would provide a $200 voucher to each citizen to support small-dollar funded campaigns. The prime supporter is Richard Painter, ethics counsel to President George W. Bush.
Notice that the “Acts” are overlapping with similar provisions in support of “small-dollar funded campaigns.” Perhaps this reflects a legislative strategy: Most could fail and only one or two succeed, and supporters could still claim they had achieved “fundamental reform.” As yet, only the first two appear to have actually been introduced as bills in the Congress. The package begs questions of viability in the face of inevitable Supreme Court challenges. This has been addressed in the case of ACA by legal counsel.ii Many activists such as those in “MoveToAmend” believe that “fundamental reform” is impossible without at least one Constitutional Amendment [CA].iii
So, LL's project can be seen as either the leading edge of CFR and/or CFR's last hurrah. Notice that the “leading edge”, if it succeeds in achieving CFR's major goal – either getting big money donations out of politics or at least strongly limiting their influence – hardly maintains the promise of the many more exaggerated claims made by “rootstrikers”, such as 'we'll renew democracy and save our republic.” In order to see why, let's return to explain why, thusfar, CFR has “failed” and why it's likely to continue to do so.
CFR has been dogged by a contradiction ever since citizens started railing about big money perverting politics. It's that reformers have consistently focused on money as the mother's milk, the sine qua non, of politics. But what about people? If politics is not people – of, by and for them, then what is it? It's what politics has become – a game played by others who only speak of representing us; a game played by the pro's hustling for power, big money and big media. After all is said and done, there's only two things that count, time and money. If people aren't involved or concerned enough to commit time to nurture, promote and build what, after all, should be their politics, then money necessarily dominates.
The steady, long-term decline in people's participation in politics has been well-documented.iv Thus, the implicit assumption of reformers who focus only on money is that reducing the influence of big money in politics will serve to bring people back in so that “We the People” could then truly “take back” what is now not theirs – their politics and their government. Trouble is, there's little or no evidence to back up the assumption. One reason is that studies to evaluate the success of “clean elections” include at most only one measuring citizens' participation in politics – that of voting. Even so, the influence of such programs is nil or slight. It's even more remarkable, however, that other indicators representing political participation that are genuine, because they call for investments of people's time, are totally omitted and ignored. The lack of these, in real life as well as studies, are why McCain-Feingold, Clean Elections and other CFR efforts have failed to achieve what is most important if we are to save our democratic republic – a high energy democratic politics involving a broad swath of engaged citizens.
How “engaged”? – via time invested in political activities that involve person-to-person, face-to-face encounters, not simply by writing checks or otherwise transferring money to people one may never meet. Such recipients of political contributions are akin to mercenaries whom we are buying to fight our battles. It's like saying “I gave at the office” – making believe one is a concerned, responsible citizen without really getting involved.
The LL strategy amounts to refocusing CFR on money in order to democratize political fundraising – by providing incentives for more people to “get involved” by providing “small dollar contributions.” The main assumption underlying the strategy was put simply by one political activist: ““To stem big $ in politics, we need small donors to have a voice...”v Or, the inverse of words in the title of this piece: “Money out/People in.” But isn't this doing little more than lowering the bar on political inequality? Most people have little to invest in political activities other than their time.
While it's nice to see
more people sending in $5-10 in support of candidates or causes, the
fact of the matter is that those contributing any amount of money to
political parties, PACs or campaigns is still a minority of the
electorate or voters. Another fact is that for all the brouhaha over
the increases of small-dollar political contributions – like
that over Obama's first campaign for President – the famous
“80/20 rule” still tends to apply: 20% of contributors
usually account for about 80% of funds raised. Given the rapid
escalation of the costs of political campaigns, no campaign can be
adequately funded only on the basis of small-dollar contributions
unless voters are taught to “Maximin” – choose the
best among the least funded
Thus, it's quite likely that LL's CFR strategy will fail to overturn CFR's record of failures. There are two more reasons why. First, the strategy not only fails to recognize the value of people's time – the signature of their mortality and all that most have to contribute. It is also naive in not recognizing the power of money. It is fungible, fluid and flexible in a multitude of ways. Money can always find a way to insinuate itself into politics and government. The elaborate set of antidotes to counter this power represents another, rather more liberal than conservative brand of naivete: That somehow, a governmental control system can be devised to put the genie of money into a foolproof box. These assumptions underlying LL's strategy are fundamentally wrong .The only genuine antidote to the system being taken over by the plutocrats is not “small-donations” politics but an energized, people-based politics – a conservative populism.vi
So, the latter day David vs. Goliath political battle is one of people vs. money. At the left side of the ring sits PB, the author of this piece; on the right sits LL. The latter is akin to Goliath because he sits atop a “SuperPAC”, the MayDay Fund, that has raised over $5 million. PB is akin to a David fighting for “We the People.” LL has begun to lavish big money on his select set of candidates. His Fund, for example, contributed more than $1.6 million to the campaign of Jim Rubens in his contest to earn the GOP nomination to U.S. Senate in NH. But Jim's big loss in the Sept. 9th Republican primary has cast a shadow over LL's “Super PAC to end Super PACs” strategy.vii Rubens captured just 23% of the vote. Other critics of LL's initiatives have levied charges of “hypocrisy.” LL's response has been to say: “Embrace the irony!” Doesn't this seem arrogant?
Meanwhile the po'boy, people-based strategy of PB and his PaCC has started to generate some positive results. Two of the four initial PaCC endorsements of congressional (House) races have won their primary races: Carl Domino in FL 18 and Marilinda Garcia in NH 2. No money was spent on these or the two other races, only time volunteered by PB and another member of the PaCC's 7-person Governing Board, Dr. Carmine Gorga. Note the difference between winning and losing messages. PaCC has been shouting out and writing to whomever has ears to hear and eyes to read, right from the outset, that “ISSUE #1” is the need for wholesale reform of Congress as an institution. Polls reveal that large majorities of the electorate recognize this need.viii This is why 2014 is such a critical election year.
2014 may be the year of 'do or die' for the American democratic republic. So, why the low turnouts for congressional primaries nationwide? Might the reason be that there's a disconnect between candidates' messages and the deeper antipathy that people are feeling towards politics in general and Congress in particular? In the process of selecting candidates to endorse, PaCC has searched high and low among congressional election websites to find candidates who both recognize ISSUE #1 and recommend actions to deal with it. Thusfar, we've found damn few who do. Carl Domino (R, FL 18) was the first with his stress on “Fix Congress First”. Brendan Kelly (L-R, NH 1) was second, by subscribing to most of the “Change Congress and empower people” propositions in our candidate survey questionairre. Marilinda Garcia (R, NH 2) was third, speaking to the need for term limits, smaller government and people's empowerment. Marisa DeFranco (D, MA 6) was fourth. She spoke to her commitment to “provide a voice for the vulnerable voiceless,” be a “real deal representative of the people, not the rich and powerful, and work to “restore faith in the Congress.”
Where then is the “disconnect”? You can see it in the SO/SO [same-old/same-old] set of major-media headline “issues” that other candidates are running on – candidates who don't even recognize or, if they do, are unwilling to admit that “the system is broke, and only “We the People” can fix it.” As long as this studied ignorance or curious indifference (call it what you will) continues for the rest of this election season, the critical opportunity provided us by the 2014 “mid-term” elections will be lost, and you can take all bets for the future of our great American democratic experiment off the table.
For media attention is already shifting to presidential politics and 2016. Again, we'll face the fetish of the Presidency-as-near-royalty. The greater importance of the Congress for “We the People” will slip into the background as most voters proceed to focus on the power of the presidency without recognizing that the overweening arrogation of power by the executive branch spells less and less power to the people.ix The checks and balances built into our system by its founders have been weakened, perhaps irreparably if we do not fight for a Congress that truly both represents and empowers us.
As for the future of “David vs. Goliath,” one can only hope that those who confuse CFR with basic, institutional change will come to see “MayDay” as CFR's last hurrah. Then, finally, before it's too late, perhaps they will devote themselves to generation of new, people-based politics “of” and “by”, and thus truly “for”, “We the People.”
i“efforts” refer to the author's urging of collaboration to Larry Lessig during the “NH Rebellion” march along part of the NH Seacoast, followed by delivery of a letter to Lessig's Harvard Law School office and an attempt to meet with him. There was no response to any of these overtures.
iiIn “About the Act” [http://anticorruptionact.org], we see: “The Act was crafted by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum.” Under “Constitutionality,” we see: “It was drafted by some of the nation's foremost constitutional attorneys.” The difference between these two attributions raises questions about the process involved.
iiiThus, it would help to read an essay by Greg Colvin (2011), “How to Choose? So Many Constitutional Amendments” (December 19).
ivEspecially by Sidney Verba, et al. See: Schlozman, Kay Lehman, Sidney Verba & Henry E. Brady (2012), THE UHEAVENLYCHORUS: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
viThe phrase is the title of the first and the theme of a set of three books on politics by the author: Bearse, Peter (2004), WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism. Lafayette, LA: Alpha Publishers.
viiSee Markay, Lachlan (2014), “Campaign Finance Reformers Admit Crushing Defeat in New Hampshire,” FREE BEACON (http://freebeacon.com/author/lachlan-markay/).
viiiAs in 80% disapproval of Congress' performance and other large majorities reflecting that “the system is broke.”
ix See Krason, Stephen M. (2012), THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE AMERICAN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, plus a “Symposium: On Krason's Transformation in THE CATHOLIC SOCIAL SCIENCE REVIEW, Vol. 18 (2013).