This was the first general election I have missed in years. I wanted to vote against George Pataki for New York governor, but what were my choices? I could cast my ballot either for Carl McCall, the hack Democrat next in line for a shot at higher office, or for Tom Golisano, one more billionaire trying to buy his way in. It is a sad indication of the arteriosclerosis of our two party system that generally, McCalls and Golisanos are the only alternatives to Republicans the system has to offer.
I was never excited about McCall, but he lost my faith entirely when it was disclosed that he had written a letter to AT&T passing along his daughter's resume while casually reminding the company that the state, via its pension fund, was a major AT&T shareholder. (AT&T dutifully hired her, then fired her later for misuse of a company credit card.) This was a significant glimpse into the mind of a man who has no idea where the line is--the kind of man the New York Democratic machine selects and molds. After this I could not vote for him under any circumstances.
Many people undoubtedly voted for McCall because he was the lesser of two evils. The two major parties have warded off third parties for many years using this argument. In the last presidential election, it went something like this: a vote for Ralph Nader and the Greens is a vote for the Republicans because the Greens suck votes only from Democrats. Once a Republican is elected, he will not only shape immediate policy but will make appointments to the Supreme Court, thereby setting social policy on freedom of speech, abortion, gun control and other important issues for decades to come, even when a Democrat is in the White House again. Therefore you are obligated to vote for the Democratic candidate, no matter how dishonest or chaotic he is, necause he is the lesser evil.
This way of thinking was not confined to the Democratic side. An editorial in the Times not long ago bitterly criticized the Libertarian party, for sucking votes from Republican candidates in close elections.
Not too many years ago I might have voted for Golisano as a protest. This time I couldn't, not because of the "lesser evil" argument against third parties. Instead, I couldn't tacitly endorse a system where there are two ways to make a significant showing at the polls: either spend decades growing on the party's fertilizer like a mushroom until it is your turn, or make a billion in business and then buy your way in.
Golisano in a sense was a failed candidate from the outset because he hadn't bought himself the nomination of one of the two major parties. Michael Bloomberg is a better example of the billionaire candidate. A lifelong Democrat, he astutely realized that the only way for an independent Democrat, who has grown up outside the party hack system, to get elected mayor of New York, is to run as a Republican. Bloomberg has been a decent mayor so far, a better one than Giuliani, lacking the latter's grudges, ego and propensity for political back-scratching (despite Giuliani's reputation for probity, he made some extremely dubious appointments to pay the Conservative Party off for supporting him).
At the height of the Internet bubble, when I was within striking distance for a while of carving off a few millions for myself despite my lack of killer instincts and rapacity, I heard someone say that "Anyone can make a million....but to become a billionaire, you really have to step on people." Like many other generalizations which sound true when you first hear them, this has some element of truth but is a gross over-simplification. It would be better to say that you can trip over a few million dollars (by example, by being a modestly talented but loyal employee of Bill Gates circa 1990) but to be a billionaire you probably have to show extraordinary qualities of leadership, strategic thinking and well-executed opportunism. All of which may be good preparation for executive office. (Certain modestly talented, loyal employees of Bill Gates circa 1980 are the exceptions to this rule.)
You certainly don't have to be evil to make a billion dollars. Ross Perot's statement, along the lines of "If you lie to your wife, you'll probably lie to me," was almost enough to make me vote for him in 1992 (I probably would have if he hadn't shown signs of an emotional breakdown, when he quit the campaign citing a conspiracy against his family). Bloomberg, again, seems to show less of a flair for political assassination than Giuliani did. So I am not inherently prejudiced against billionaires.
However, I have the most radical, deeply held objection to a system where amassing a billion dollars is the sole alternative route to higher office for those who cannot tolerate spending twenty years as a reliable mediocrity rising through the local political hierarchy.
McCall saw nothing wrong with getting his daughter a job because it was a comfortable, every-day act in the system that nurtured him. This is one of the major points of failure in the Democratic party as a machine. A political party has to function on two planes, the procedural and the substantive. The substantive plane involves the party's goals. The procedural involves the way the party will work, in the light but also in the dark, to get the job done. But if you ask me what Carl McCall stands for, I can only answer that he stands for using the power of his office to get a job for his daughter. At this point the procedural has completely obscured, even destroyed the substantive.
It is of course the money that has warped things out of shape. The amounts that must be spent to capture even a seat in Congress, let alone a senatorship or governorship, have reached unprecedented levels. The money must come from somewhere. Either it comes from your own pocket, as was the case with Bloomberg and Golisano, or you must have mastered the art of getting other people to give it up, as Bill Clinton did. In the latter situation, essentially a system of legalized bribery where contributions buy access and consideration, you must mirror the views of the people who have the money in order to get them to give it to you.
The consequences of this fact are very serious. If sixty percent of the people of the United States became radical populists, but only four percent of the people with money were, a radical populist candidate without his own billions would never win office despite the number of people ready to vote for him. (A radical populist candidate who happened to be a billionaire-- Ross Perot--would be denied nomination by either majority party as too dangerous, and billions would be spent to marginalize him in order to protect the existing system.) While many of us may feel (as I used to, not so many years ago) that the magic of American democracy lies in the choice we make when we pull the lever in the voting booth, there is much more significance in the choices which were made by a small group of highly influential people before we were ever given the chance to make a choice of our own. Ninety-five percent of the winnowing work has been done before we ever get to go to the polls. In other words, the real election has already taken place, and has involved people voting with dollars instead of with levers.
Since more wealthy people are conservative than otherwise, the Democratic party, in order to attract the money it needs, has had to swing to the right, alienating enough of its traditional constituencies to guarantee the startling turn-out for the Greens in 2000. You don't continue to capture the hearts and minds of voters by presenting yourself merely as the lesser evil. In order to want to salute a flag, we must understand what it stands for, and be excited about that message. The Democrats, due to the warping influence of money, lost any message years ago. At best, the Democrats come across as Republican-lite, but "We're less Republican than they are" is not much of a rallying cry. The counter-message is more compelling: "Tempted to vote for a Democrat? Why not vote for a real Republican instead?"
Though I have just savaged McCall as a hack, I also want to note that the national party's startling abandonment of him is highly symptomatic of its problems. The public message that he wouldn't receive any more national money unless he first improved his standing in the polls communicated several messages at once: that the Democrats are financially strapped compared to the Republicans, forced to allocate their largesse more carefully; a sense of desperation leading to illogic, because McCall's best chance to improve his standing in the polls would have been to spend more money he didn't have; and finally, a stunning admission that it is really all about the money, thus the procedural stuff, not the substance.
European friends of mine on their first visits to the United States would comment on the astonishing range of choices in American supermarkets-- dozens of brands of olive oil on the same shelf. That diversity is not reflected in the U.S. political system, which is like a diner in which you have a choice of Rice Chex or Wheat Chex for breakfast.
For this I blame the founders. They were so frightened of direct democracy that they built a system with two many checks and balances on it. The checks and balances have become the heart and soul of the system; the democracy itself, the vital but unstable energy source for which the other machinery provided a stepdown system, is nowhere to be found, with the money providing an alternative energy supply.
Political systems, like everything else, are subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Though all die in entropy, their fates are different, according to the type of system. Multiple party states tend to die in diversity, but two party states die in monotony. The Founders were so frightened of the perceived weaknesses of parliamentary democracies that they created a monolith.
The two parties we have today are not the same two we started out with, so there have been radical births in the past, but, given the presence of money as a sort of arteriosclerotic plaque in the system today, it is hard to imagine the circumstances which will bring forth a new party from the ashes of the Democrats. Instead, the most likely result is that our two party democracy will decay into a one-party state.
The winner-take-all bias built into the system has dictated that third parties cannot take root and survive as organizations. Without the only valid proof of success--candidates elected to office--third parties always evaporate as their constituents become convinced of the mainstream wisdom that their votes are wasted. Thus, even billionaire candidates like Perot and Golisano, and highly visible and compelling ones like Nader, leave nothing durable behind; the millions of votes Perot captured did not translate, despite years of effort, into a durable organization playing a continuing role in U.S. politics. Nader's Green Party did not get enough votes in New York state this time to be on the ballot next time.
In New York, third parties have thrived by playing a bizarre role, that of symbiotes, often of parasites, on the two party system. Form a party, gather some voters, and then endorse one of the majority party's candidates. If you succeed, you own a bloc of voters which must be bought by a mainstream party in every election. In recent years, the Liberal party (which also just fell off the New York ballot for by failing to garner 50,000 votes this time) has been savagely criticized for no longer having a message. Like Carl McCall, it stood for nothing but power and patronage.
I am not criticizing the function of third parties as blocs which must be wooed. But they are nothing but ghost blocs if they do not have their own politicians in office. If I lived in a parliamentary democracy, I would probably be attached to a minority party with only a small percentage of legislative seats. But my party would at least have the opportunity to wield real influence from time to time by providing the swing vote on legislation, or by joining a coalition government. By contrast, my votes for Ralph Nader in two successive elections had much less impact. At best, I may have helped influence the Democratic party to get back on message in order to win us back. With the money arrayed on the other side, that's not too likely.
The founders were frightened that too much democracy would lead to chaos. What they failed to see was that if you start out with just a little democracy you end up with none.