A Response to Peter Bearse's "Year 2000 and the AGENDA for REFORM"

by Ben G. Price bengprice@aol.com

I was not only flattered, but genuinely touched by Peter Bearse's dedication of his article "Year 2000 and the AGENDA for REFORM" to me. In no small measure, Peter has caused me to revisit my opinions on political and social issues, especially as they touch on the necessary reforms required to democratize our electoral and legislative process. My hat is off to him for his dedication to finding ways of increasing citizen participation in the electoral process. Early on, he and I found this to be a common goal.

As Peter stated in his introduction to the article he posted to The Ethical Spectacle in September 2003, he and I had discussed co-writing an essay on Campaign and Electoral Reform for the Spectacle. But, as he said it, "we had several disagreements over what to write on certain issues like the Supreme Court's 'election' of George Bush."

I like Peter's knack for understatement almost as much as I like his controlled use of language to prove a point completely disjointed from what I consider to be the realm of possibility. It is an art form I admire, but disapprove of on its face. (It's okay, I think. Peter knows me and knows I'm dead serious about my principled disagreements with him, but despite our disagreements I am glad we can still be friends.)

Peter writes at length to tell us how important it is that "people are brought back into the picture" of politics. But he and I do not agree about how bringing the popular point of view, the peoples' opinion, the "will of the people" (a phrase he seems to loathe) back into representative government should be realized.

Realizing that Peter's essay is actually a chapter from a book that covers other facets of political reform well beyond the scope of this one chapter, still I note a peculiarity of presentation in terms of organization of ideas. Peter switches topics from the illegitimacy of the 2000 presidential election to the illegitimacy of campaign finances without drawing any clear connection except his rejection of the illegitimacy of both. (He is, in other words, satisfied with the process and the outcome yielded by the 2000 presidential election, as well as the system of financing electoral campaigns as they have so far been funded). How and why these two phenomena are connected in his calculation of a political logic that is supposed to offer reform is not made very clear. What is clear is that he and I disagree almost diametrically on the interpretation of the observed facts covered in this chapter.

The whole of Peter's arguments on the topics of the 2000 presidential election scandal and the scandal of special interest money in electoral and legislative politics could be summed up rather neatly by saying this sentence: "No objection to the presidency of George Bush is defensible, and no objection to the expenditure of unlimited sums of money to install preferred candidates into public office by those controlling said unlimited sums of money is defensible." To be sure, Peter says again and again that going after the thinly veiled exchange of "campaign" money for legislative favors and attempting to overhaul the antiquated machinery of selecting presidents vicariously misses the point of "getting people involved in politics." But it seems, after so many attempts to pin him down in private correspondences, that Peter rejects my argument that prefers the influence of people over the privilege of wealth. I wish I could find something hopeful for the cause of democracy in his reassurances of a preferred place for "people" in politics. But I am coming to understand the role of the populace as a merely symbolic one in his vision of representative government. It would be something akin to the monarchy in Britain.

Let's argue, if we must, about democracy's deplorable condition in America today. It's palpably unsettling but clearly necessary to keep fighting politically for the bare minimums of liberty that everyone, regardless of income, race, gender or faith is supposed to be able to expect. Fact is, income is one of the biggest factors dictating what rights can be enjoyed by Americans (not to mention people of all nationalities). Gender, marital status, faith and race are other factors that are frequently used (unconstitutionally) to limit freedom's felicity in the lives of Americans. These on-going difficulties aside, having right wing Christian fundamentalist zealots in positions of power has not much advanced the cause of liberty in America over the past few years. It is (I will here editorialize) concordant with the way the chosen leader of these pious human haters came to power that America's "character" is becoming understood around the globe as being more akin to the dogmatically authoritarian regimes in countries like Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia than to anything espoused in the liberal documents that signed-over liberty to succeeding generations at America's founding.

Peter doesn't actually say that no matter what connivance was necessary George Bush deserved the presidency, nor does he argue flat out that having the financial resources to persuade the electorate by whatever means to vote in a particular way is good for democracy, but he carves out a rhetorical universe that is the foreground to this opinion so that, having said everything but this "truth" in his laizze faire version of the political involvement left over to "the people", he leaves no doubt that the privilege of political influence and its appeal to power through remembrance of favor is the gravitational core of his political cosmology.

If Peter immediately revokes such a political set-up as the one he has played party to, I will be relieved. But I do not think he agrees with my interpretation of his embrace of privilege (or, in the illegitimacy of privilege itself!)

A political universe some may claim to be real politic is, for me, the mere fossilization of representative government into paleo-gravitas: the expectation of favor from prior gratuities. It's bribery short and sweet, and it inhabits the moneyed elite in equal measure to how it inhibits representation. It makes a mockery of approximations to democracy even as those mockeries are devised and defended by apologists for privilege. It's what ought to be called "corruption," but those invested in politics have spent inordinate amounts of money to ensure that lies are called calculations and that corruption will be called simple political nuance. Liars are never liars in real politic, just strategists. And corruption is referred to as "campaign finance." Peter is, as am I, a partisan commentator. I like his attempt to find a nuanced way to champion the guy and gal on the street while at the same time defending the strategy for their disenfranchisement. It is a balancing act that requires his deft handling of language. It is, as you can imagine, unsuccessful on close examination.

For instance, his preference for the Supreme Court's adjudicated outcome of the 2000 presidential election cascades into a torrent of rationalizations for the rightness of that outcome as surely as the irregularities in the process are pointed to by opponents as proof of its illegitimacy. For as much as I would like to find his arguments persuasive, my disappointment is compounded as I encounter unfounded assertions and elegant but self-contradictory flourishes of reasoning. There are a few essential facts that typically determine outcomes of fair and democratic elections. Peter spends a lot of time talking about other facts that, while intellectually enticing, are irrelevant. For myself, I was indifferent to a Gore or a Bush win, but I am NOT indifferent to the corruption in high places that indisputably accompanied Bush and would likely have followed Gore into the White House.

My commitment to another candidate and another outcome was and remains genuine. The choices offered by the old parties that are now merely the left and right wings of a single corporate hegemony over American politics were illegitimate in my estimation, and so was the entire political process, including the inaccessible primary process for both old political parties that selected candidates without democratic input, but instead acceded to the prevailing party hierarchies.

That illegitimacy has its roots in the camouflaged disenfranchisement of the American electorate through the insidious influence of money in and throughout the political system. It is this problem that I have consistently addressed with my friend, Peter Bearse, and to which he has remained reticent, even recalcitrant to deal with forthrightly, to my great regret. This is the co-joining factor that makes the illegitimacy of the 2000 presidential campaign and the illegitimacy of campaign finances a seamless and intertwined issue for those honestly in pursuit of democratic reform in America.

It is disconcerting that, for all his expressed dismay at the marginalizing of people from politics, Peter fails to address any of the core arguments in favor of Campaign Finance Reform (CFR). I am impressed by his arguments that deconstruct CFR as irrelevant, but I wonder why he never confronts the popular arguments in favor of Campaign Finance Reform. Can he seriously claim to favor people-generated governance and yet dismiss the major point of disaffection between people and how government behaves?

I am not talking about McCain-Feingold or Shays-Meehan as they were spit out the down-wind side of a Congress full of hot air. I mean REAL Campaign Finance Reform (CFR). The kind my 93 year-old friend Doris Haddock ("Granny D"), walked across the continent to see enacted. The kind Mitch McConnell thought was too good for common people. The kind he dared challenge with the taunt: "If people care so much about Campaign Finance Reform, then where's the outrage?" The kind of reform that led me to walk away from complacency and risk unemployment by exercising my citizenship in acts of civil disobedience that resulted in three arrests. Where's the outrage, Mitch? Indeed! Come stand toe to toe with me and you'd taste some outrage!

I surmise that Peter utterly rejects getting big money out of politics until (if then) everyone reads about how to do it in his new book. Frankly, even then I don't think he likes the idea of state regulation of bucks in politics. And if that's the case, then I dare say his solution either embraces the belief that the rich will either suddenly sprout consciences or the poor will all stop whining and admit the rich and powerful deserve more rights than the poor. Those are silly arguments, of course. Democracy is a good go-between where need and power conflict. Policies that promote democracy are unpopular for one reason or another these days. Perhaps because so much power in the face of so much need goes un-used as it tries to coincide with centers of power. When humans conflict with power, power is, even if artificial, very real.

I wish Peter success with the book. In it a real heart believing in something called representative democracy struggles with what that means. But, as Peter wrote in his sweet dedication, he and I do not agree about some issues at the core of democracy and at the rotting heart of what ails it.

Presented as an argument against Campaign Finance Reform (CFR), fully half of Peter's article (a chapter from his book) fails to rebut the heart-felt arguments of CFR proponents because it avoids addressing them. Rather than head-on attacking the accusations of reformers that campaign contributions amount to bribery with the expectation of legislative favor, Peter offers a rhetorical and polemical side-step that seems designed to divert attention from the core complaint against unregulated money insinuated into the process of democratic representation.

In its most unadorned form, the reformers' complaint argues that equal representation among the citizenry is thwarted by the unequal access that disproportionately large "contributions" to parties and candidates purchases. Yes, purchases. It is a charge of corruption and bribery, not merely a complaint of unfair advantage on the side of wealth.

It is a charge of corruption and a grievance lodged in favor of a restoration of democratic representation.

Unfortunately, Peter avoids responding to this direct charge, and in so doing he fails to make an argument that neutralizes the call for CFR and the regulation of political contributions. The rest of his treatment of the issue of Campaign Finance Reform reads like sophisticated bait and switch, alas. Back to the chicanery of the 2000 presidential election: Deftly but not convincingly argued by Peter is the "demagoguery" of any claim by candidates to office that the notion of "the will of the people" can be expressed (not just symbolically) through an exercise of the electoral process. Peter regularly argues in his book that people participation in the democratic process is the untapped secret weapon that will bring representative democracy into its renaissance, but he as regularly belittles the notion that a collective and cooperative will can be cobbled together by people of good will. The "will of the people" is, for Peter, a dangerous myth worthy of ridicule. He makes fun of it. He doesn't believe in it. He thinks a "collective" or a common or a general point of view in a community is shit for sale and fertilizer that is waiting to get spread. On this point, among others, he and I diametrically part company.

Despite Peter's claims, it is neither proven nor given that partisan preference for a popular outcome of an election amounts to "demagoguery," though that's what he likes to call political disagreements. Nor is it "demagoguery" to solicit a legal mitigation of electoral irregularities, in my opinion. Placing intentions in the minds and words or in the mouths of political opponents so as to more effectively falsify their motivations and deeds in the public perception seems more akin to "demagoguery" to me than any attempt to defend the integrity of an election, but I like not the word and chose to avoid it when possible.

Simply to count all votes and to make count all intended votes seems enough to serve democracy, in my estimation. Demagoguery comes later, when someone tries to change the meaning of a vote, or tries to make meaningless a vote, that's how it seems to me.

As it applies to the dispute over Campaign Finance Reform (CFR), Peter's interlocution into the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election is a curiosity. Certainly the outcome of this election, and how it was arrived at, weighs heavily on the question of the remnant form of representative democracy now suffering under the yolk of a sublimated system of bribery from which CFR advocates continue to recoil. And while the United States retains the Electoral College for federal elections, Florida and other states continue to choose the electors to that body by majority vote. Determining the majority is the point of holding the election open to all eligible voters. And counting their votes correctly is germane to a fair and representative process. Whatever foils those ends foils democratic representation, be it a political party, a state law, or the Supreme Court.

Peter has argued for an adherence to the established formalisms throughout his writings and our personal correspondences, including the undemocratic and unrepresentative Electoral College as well as state laws, such as those in Florida, that actively thwart a more accurate and intricate participation of citizens in the political process.

His is an argument for the rule of law, and it is not without merit. But say what I may against the archaic tyranny of the Electoral College and the selection of state delegates, Peter can dispute me on the grounds of legalistic propriety. And yet he fails to make the case that he has an "agenda for reform" when he so assiduously defends the undemocratic status quo. And this is a central argument that, for all his rhetoric, Peter fails to truthfully address. Having abandoned a direct confrontation with the good reasoning behind Clean Elections, Peter chose to talk about something contentious, with an emotional charge equivalent to the partisan opposition to electoral reform harbored by my friend and his allies in neo-liberal circles now dismantling populist causes and programs across the globe.

I suggest that his rationale for generating a non-sequitor emotive response among the target chattel populace, who are victims of "neo-liberal" trade, which is Peter's real passion, was calculated. To more easily redirect and use for partisan purposes people who have nothing to do with the root cause of agitation (not that they are not influenced by it, but they might profit by staying disengaged from taking a position), nothing works better than marginalizing the dissenters by magnifying the mindless assenters.

Just consider the high state of agitation after 9-11-01. That libidinal charge* was channeled into war frenzy for an invasion of Iraq, even though Iraq played no role in the terrorist attack.

It is the rhetorical strategy of diversion that is of interest, not the details of recent international policy deceptions. Who cares what the facts are? Who cares? Well, if Peter doesn't, then who cares what he thinks?

Peter expresses measured and appropriate dismay over the show-window displays by two candidates of their professed commitment to electoral reform during the 2000 election. The (in)famous "handshake" between John McCain and Bill Bradley in New Hampshire percolates up for Peter's bemused derision. And he is right to state bluntly: nothing came of it.

Of course, the Thousand Pound Gorilla reason (unmentioned by Peter) is that the moneyed candidates, the Bush and Gore camps, then competing against each other but also against the self-proclaimed "reformers", had triangulated them out of the picture through the lens of cash influence and the exposure it could buy. The cross-party handshake of McCain and Bradley was mere wishful thinking in the face of party machines that had already decided on their candidates. Only two opposed cash juggernauts would survive the primary, and neither one of them would ever shake hands to promise cleaner elections.

There are a few very good reasons for overhauling the role of money and wealth in the American political system of elections and legislation. There is really only one reason for opposing it, although it can be sent through a prism of crystallized bedrock special pleading to create a colorful spectrum of seemingly creative and thoughtful "conservative" arguments against populism, the "demagoguish" rule of the people, and other silliness robed in political profundity.

Privilege is the essence, the crux, the full meaning and the word behind the resistance to reform. Where Peter sees a hopeful message to those wanting to participate in democracy in the Supreme Court's political resolution (rather than legal) of the 2000 presidential election, the clear message sent to every American home by the court, with its "one day only" and not to be construed as precedence setting decision was this: by a politically split margin, the court chose to stop counting votes that might change the temporary advantage for either candidate. By doing so, they gave preference to one candidate over another despite and regardless of the number of votes cast by citizens. This is an elitist stance. Arguments that support it are in favor of privilege and not democracy. The "equal protection" argument resorted to by the court would have given the exact opposite outcome had equal protection been applied to the voters rather than the candidates. The choice to apply legal protection to George Bush rather than to the voters in Florida and across America was a choice for privilege and against democracy.

If there is a hopeful interpretation, perhaps it is the peculiar opinion of the court that their decision should not be used as precedent in other legal decisions. Perhaps they recognized that, although they had breached every level of trust between citizens and a truly representative government, they understood that such a blatant expression of judicial hypocrisy could not become the standard without causing a collapse of the popular notion of government's legitimacy.

It is ironic that the "temporary tyranny" of the Supreme Court is now being evoked to support the overthrow of a gubernatorial election in California. The notion that elections are temporary is a new one, but the widespread idea that votes are valueless is even newer. Peter's version of "democracy" devoid of demagoguery belonging to those who can afford it doesn't help a bit. Why the hell should it?

I should and could make the case for eliminating the cash chase from elections and the formation of legislation. Would you care if I do? The illegality of corporate (and union) involvement in the electoral and legislative process was established (I wish I could say "firmly") in law early in the twentieth century, but was quickly challenged and regularly eroded to the point of its present irrelevance quite effectively through PACs and lobbying groups.Corporations are not mentioned in the US Constitution as institutional partakers in American democracy, so it is more than a curiosity that they have gained hegemony over our American form of government. And when reformers dare suggest legislation to either regulate or discard the undemocratic power of that concentrated corporate wealth to short-circuit the legitimate and sovereign will of a free people attempting to govern their own lives and fate, no one is surprised by the tempest of resistance with which reform is met.

It is the well-instructed lapdogs of privilege that sometimes surprise us and puzzle our reckoning. Shouldn't all people cherish liberty and the oversight of free people to regulate society's tools for commerce?

As we might imagine, concentrated wealth is able to entice with choice rewards and nearly autonomous privilege those who will act in obedience to this simple rule: never question your betters. It is a dictum that "trickles down" to the lower echelons of society without accompaniment of the enhancing privileges that make its proselytizers willing shills for the beautiful people, the wealthy who take for granted their lack of accountability to the rest of humanity. Concerns about class and elitism have been draped in the rhetoric of "class warfare" by well-paid propagandists and are well and effectively censored, so that public discussion that approaches righteous venting on topics of privilege, property, and power can be easily parried with a mere wrist twitch, as it were, by corporate media and subsidized academics.

Peter safely avoids even that kind of rhetorical fencing and seems to deny by evasion the possibility that class agendas play a role in the demolition of American democracy. He keeps trying to pull us back to the lack of individual involvement as the core failure of American democracy. I agree with him. That's why we can still communicate civilly. But Peter and I are at odds about WHY people are not engaged in democracy.

I have corresponded with Peter, read his chapters, spoken in person, but still can't pin down in my mind how and on what level he sees the involvement of individual citizens becoming a value in the democratic process. Sometimes I think I understand him to mean that "if only people would get out and support their political parties" democracy would benefit. When I object that those parties need to be open and responsive to the concerns of people and not the reverse, I sense a hiatus of attention, perhaps a disconnect in understanding. I do not mean to judge motivation, but I continue to sense a cognitive affiliation with privilege in Peter's writings, and I have come to think of it as perhaps an unconscious tropism that gives a quirky inconsistency to his call for populist involvement in democracy and at the same time discounts any actual or pragmatic means to achieve that as illegitimate.

I will at this point address some of Peter's comments about Clean Elections legislation.

As with most "privateers" (pirates of public funds looking to make them private property) those who oppose the idea of "public financing" of campaigns couch the idea in terms of "big government" taking money out of public coffers to give to candidates for public office. It seems contradictory to those persuaded by the privateers' argument that by giving a relatively small amount of money, to be evenly divided among competing candidates and parties, the public interest in fair elections is served. Actually, the privateers' argument leaves that impression, but its disconnect with reality is in arguing without saying so that it is against their interests to have an even playing field. More nuanced and difficult to sell, but more rational, is the argument that a public investment in fair elections will advance the cause of proportional rather than privileged representation. Using the collective clout of public funds to diminish the advantages of concentrated and privileged wealth makes sense if the desired end result is more representative governance.

We invest public funds in all kinds of projects that vie for public support. What more uncontroversial public good can we fund than the educated and unvarnished selection of candidates for public office? Peter argues that "subsidies" such as public campaign financing "are a wasteful 'dead weight' to the extent that they subsidize activity that would have been undertaken anyway."

But he doesn't mention that the motivations of those who would undertake it anyway are NOT in the public interest. Like those who argue for private HMO vs public single payer healthcare, the profit motive is left out of the discussion of "who profits?" especially when the electoral system is considered. Whether it's a broken leg or a broken school system, do we really want to have the person or organization likely to profit from public policy setting public policy? Does the "Invisible Hand" of the marketplace have to become the Holy Spirit guiding life, liberty and happiness in every American's pantheon, or do we still believe in freedom of religion in this nation?

Peter Bearse mocks the state initiatives for Clean Election reform (public financing of campaigns), and finds ready fault in the Massachusetts model, which was passed by referendum, only to be stalled in its enactment by self-interested patriarchs in the legislature. Preservation of parties is a core reservation against Clean Election reforms, and Peter takes a strong pro-party stand against citizens. It is then no wonder that he criticizes the watered-down and barely surviving reform legislation that passes state legislatures and referenda (only to be beat to a pulp later). Once vivisected and passed into law, the carcass of reform (like the McCain-Feingold mutant that cleared the conference committee) is easy to run down and field dress for pundit consumption. Straw men reformers and red herring legislation use to suffice as fodder for the sycophants who oppose reform but stand for portraits with the reformers. Now they revel in disgorging bad laws that have barely survived their chomping mandibles while protesting what they say are the imaginative stories of their detractors that they are somehow "anti-reform." They claim to have "negotiated" in good faith, when all they have done is chew at the flanks of their quarryuntil it fell lifeless on the savannah of hyena scavenged politics. Peter, you want us to count the success or failure of Clean Election reform based on how many new volunteers get involved in politics and the number of new candidates who enter campaigns? Then you discount the additional candidates who would never have bothered to run, calling them "the usual suspects" and "the already politically self-interested" while pooh-poohing volunteers because some might be "carpet-bagger" help from other districts or states?

The fact is, with more ballot access more candidates will run and voters will have more choices--despite the predisposition of some to label the extra interlopers "self-interested." Clearly, those taking huge "contributions" from self-interested donors may be qualititatively less "self-interested," but they have agreed to serve special interests that override their own interests (in consideration of a handily camouflaged quid pro quo) and the public interest they are posing as candidates to serve.

As for campaign volunteers, unpaid political workers are by definition committed to a political agenda of one stripe or another. They are less likely to be persuaded by corrupting influences and more likely to serve grassroots concerns. Unpaid volunteers willing to work out of district and out of state are absolutely less suspect than out of district and out of state dollars that come skipping in to work their political voodoo. It is a commonplace for neighbors to help neighbors in common struggles. It is equally a commonplace for scoundrels to try to buy off the opposition. Give me an army of volunteers from anywhere USA over a bucket of currency from corporate America and I'll find grassroots democracy for you!

Let's get down to political parties. Peter is alarmed that Clean Elections legislation (public financing of campaigns) and other reforms would help candidates first, "thus diminishing the role of parties in the political process." I wish Peter worried as much about the diminishing role of voters and the input of citizens (yes, I mean "the will of the people") as he does the role of political parties and corporations in the political process. I understand his defense will be in terms of the constitutional difference between direct democracy and a representative republic, but I am neither a biblical nor a constitutional literalist. I believe the living have some claim to ascendancy over the dead, and that liberty, equality, and freedom pertain not to philosophical rhetoric nor compromised formalities that respected well rid-of bigotries against races, classes, genders and religions.

I dare stand the same ground my "betters" who are often called the "Founding Fathers" stood upon. I dare claim as much, at least, as did they for themselves for my own kin, and for myself and for all others in equal measure. And I eschew all formalisms and dogmatic habits that stand in the way. And so, yes, I reject even so scholarly an argument as my friend Peter Bearse puts forth here. It is, I hope he will pardon me for saying so, an irrelevancy to pose arguments against more democracy in the face of the prospect of realliberty, which I know he hopes to serve, but which I unhappily conclude he may unwittingly oppose.