Money Makes The World Go Round…

Follow the money…

A recent study found that a dozen “mega donors” contributed one in every 13 Dollars raised by political campaigns since 2009. The study was undertaken in an effort to determine whether and how the role of the super rich had grown following the loosening of restrictions on political spending by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago.

The growing influence of multimillion-dollar megadonors has been accompanied by another, competing trend: a surge of small online donations to politicians of both parties. Those contributions — in $5, $10 and $25 increments — have given Democrats and Republicans an alternate source of money beyond the super rich.

Still, the study found that the top 100 ZIP codes for political giving in the United States, which hold less than 1 percent of the total population, accounted for roughly 20 percent of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised between January 2009 and December 2020. The study used data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles figures from the Federal Election Commission.

The study didn’t include state-level contributions, so the picture that emerged is incomplete, but the overall message is clear enough: money matters disproportionately in American politics.

The amount of money at a candidate’s disposal isn’t necessarily dispositive; as a a friend who used to be a political strategist has always maintained, a good candidate with a good message who raises at least enough money to get that message out can defeat an opponent with a much larger campaign war-chest. But anyone who dismisses the significance of campaign funding is delusional.

That said, trying to get a handle on campaign finance is a fraught exercise, and many seemingly good ideas end up generating unanticipated–and negative–consequences.

Take the reforms that have focused on limiting candidate spending.  It sounds fair, but imposing uniform limits tend to work in favor of incumbents, because most Incumbents begin the election cycle with high name recognition. Challengers need to build that recognition (which is one reason why celebrities with no government experience have a leg up in such contests).  Once a non-famous challenger  spends enough to build that name recognition, campaign spending limits kick in. Typically, that’s the point at which the incumbent is just beginning to spend. In other words, just as a challenger starts to become competitive, spending limits choke off political competition.

So what would effective, workable reform look like? Previous efforts–caps on contribution amounts, reporting requirements and the like–have been circumvented by canny lawyers. The hope that small donations facilitated by the Internet would be a countervailing force has dimmed, as it has become apparent that it is easier for fringe candidates to generate those funds from equally fringe voters (evidently, Marjorie Taylor Greene has taken in very substantial amounts). It would be great if we could set time limits for campaigning, but that would probably help incumbents as well–and in any event, run afoul of  the First Amendment.

Given the rules as they exist, the only counter to the influence of money in American politics is the franchise–and the multitude of civic and political organizations that are working to expand voter turnout. As we approach the 2022 midterms, Republicans are working furiously to counter those efforts, and as I have noted in previous posts, the GOP goes into each election cycle with a number of structural and financial advantages, not to mention a media ecosystem supporting–nay, trumpeting– their messaging. (And no, MSNBC tilts left but is absolutely not a counterweight to Fox, et al. Accusations to the contrary are assertions of a false equivalency.)

Democratic systems are supposed to reflect the will of the people. Political actors who enjoy enough resources and structural advantages can and do ignore and subvert that will. How we even the playing field, how we facilitate “fair fights” and prevent donations from drowning out the voice of  the public is by no means clear.

But at the end of the day, money really does make the political world go around….and we need to figure out a way to lessen its impact.

 

Free Speech

“Cancel culture.” “Political correctness.” “Hate speech.” Americans have been arguing about free speech since passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Recently, there have even been reports of disagreement within that bastion of free-speech defense, the ACLU.

As we all know, no one is trying to shut up people with whom they agree. The First Amendment was designed, as Justice Holmes memorably put it, to “protect the idea we hate.” In an effort to explain why that insight is so important, I often shared with my students a personal experience from “back in the day”– early in my long-ago tenure as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU.

Members of the KKK had applied to use the steps of the Indiana Statehouse for a rally. Then-Governor Evan Bayh (who surely knew better) refused to allow it. The Statehouse steps had routinely been used by other organizations, and despite Bayh’s posturing, the law clearly forbid the government from allowing or disallowing such use based on the content of the message to be delivered.

So the Klan came to the ACLU.

At the time, the people who ended up representing the rights of these odious people included the Jewish Executive Director (me), the affiliate’s one secretary, who was Black, and a co-operating attorney, who was gay.

Each of us knew that if the Klan ever achieved power, we’d be among the first to be marginalized or even eliminated–so why on earth would we protect the organization’s right to spew its bigotry? Because we also knew that– in a system where government can pick and choose who has rights– no one really has rights. The government that can muzzle the KKK today can muzzle me tomorrow–and as we have (painfully) learned, we can’t assume that good people will always be in charge of that government.

As one ACLU leader put it, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

As with so many other misunderstood elements of the Bill of Rights, the issue isn’t what you may say or do– it is who gets to decide what you say or do? And right now, at the same time state-level Republican legislators are accusing the left of “canceling” their messages and “censoring” Dr. Seuss, they are waging a determined war on protesters’ and educators’ right to say things with which they disagree. 

As Michelle Goldberg recently reported,

In a number of states, Republicans have responded to last year’s racial justice uprising by cracking down on demonstrators. As The Times reported in April, during 2021 legislative sessions, lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills. An Indiana bill would bar people convicted of unlawful assembly from state employment. A Minnesota proposal would prohibit people convicted of unlawful protesting from getting student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance. Florida passed a law protecting drivers from civil liability if they crash their cars into people protesting in the streets.

Meanwhile, the right-wing moral panic about critical race theory has led to a rash of statewide bills barring schools — including colleges and universities — from teaching what are often called “divisive concepts,” including the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. Even where such laws haven’t been passed, the campaign has had a chilling effect; the Kansas Board of Regents recently asked state universities for a list of courses that include critical race theory.

As Goldberg says, there’s nothing new about the left growing weary of sticking up for the rights of reactionaries. Personally, I would find it really satisfying to shut down Faux News, or to tell the My Pillow Guy to go stuff a sock in it. The problem is, satisfying that urge won’t take us where we need to go. Goldberg’s last sentence is worth contemplating.

 Maybe every generation has to learn for itself that censorship isn’t a shortcut to justice.

To which I would just add: and criticism of your position by people who aren’t using the power of government to shut you up isn’t censorship.

 

 

 

Ezra Klein Is Right

Ezra Klein is becoming one of my favorite pundits, thanks to columns in the New York Times like this one from late April, in which (in an aside) he pointed out that America “does have a multiparty political system, it’s just tucked inside the Senate Democratic caucus.”

The column–written before reports of the hardening of Senator Manchin’s stubborn refusal to consider any measure, no matter how good for the country, unless it is sufficiently “bipartisan”–considered the prospects of such bipartisanship in today’s degraded political environment.

As he notes,

The yearning for bipartisanship shapes the Senate in profound ways. For instance, it helps the filibuster survive. The filibuster is believed — wrongly, in my view — to promote bipartisanship, and so it maintains a symbolic appeal for those who wish for a more bipartisan Senate. “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Senator Joe Manchin wrote in The Washington Post. “The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship.”

In the absence of the filibuster, the Senate might pass more legislation, but it would do so in a more partisan way, and some, like Manchin, would see that as a failure no matter the content of the bills. “We’d all prefer bipartisanship, but for some of my colleagues, it’s a very high value,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, told me.

Klein offers a contrary view: he argues that bipartisan governance isn’t innately better than partisan governance. In fact, he asserts, it’s often worse.

Although it is true that neither party has all the answers, bipartisan support does not usually generate legislation that features–or even includes– the best ideas of Republicans and the best ideas of Democrats.  Klein points out the obvious barriers to such a happy result.

A bipartisan bill is simply a bill that members of both parties support. That means they can support it ideologically and they can support it politically. It’s that latter condition that’s toughest to fulfill: The minority party doesn’t want to give the majority big, bipartisan accomplishments, because the minority party wants the majority to lose the next election….

The set of ideas that both parties can agree on is far smaller and blander than the range of ideas that one party or the other likes. To insist on bipartisanship as a condition of passage is to believe that it’s better for Amercan politics to choose its solutions from the kids’ menu.

Klein reminds readers that virtually all Republican elected officials have signed a pledge to oppose any and all tax increases. A bipartisan approach would thus take taxes off the table.  But even when tax policies aren’t under consideration, bills with bipartisan support are generally bills that have seen their “edges” sanded off.

Compromise bills can be wise legislation, but they often result in policy too modest and mushy to solve problems. We would never want industries to release only products that all the major competitors can agree on…

Klein concedes that things haven’t always been this polarized, and bipartisanship hasn’t always produced toothless legislation. But the current search for bipartisanship–at least, as conceived by Manchin and Sinema–is really summarized by a couple of memes circulating on Facebook. One has Lincoln saying he’d like to emancipate the slaves, but only after getting buy-in from the slaveholders; the other shows an 18th-Century man considering American independence, but only if the English agree.

Mitch McConnell has made it abundantly clear that the only “bipartisanship” Republicans will recognize is surrender by the Democrats to their demands.

Manchin and his ilk misunderstand a basic premise of American politics. As Klein explains,

This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than what we have now, where neither party can routinely pass its best ideas into law, and the public is left frustrated that so much political tumult changes so little.

It will surprise no one to hear that I think Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. But it’s not because I believe Democrats necessarily have the right answers for what ails America. It’s because I believe the right answers are likelier to be found if one party, and then the other, can try its hand at solving America’s problems. Partisan governance gives both parties true input over how America is governed; they just have to win elections. Bipartisan governance, at least with parties this polarized, does the opposite: It deprives both sides of the ability to govern and elections of their consequences.

Exactly.

 

The Masks Have Come Off

I’m not talking about masks against COVID–although the utterly bizarre fight against mandates protecting public health are certainly part of the picture. (I’m a pretty hard-core defender of civil liberties, but I never thought I’d see people arguing that the Bill of Rights gives them the “liberty” to infect and perhaps kill their fellow Americans…)

The mask that has come off of far too many American faces is the mask of sanity.

When we have former military officers promoting coups, millions of Americans agreeing that the country is being run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, members of the U.S. Senate calling legislation to protect voting rights “partisan” and ideologues of every stripe self-righteously pontificating to their chosen “choirs” rather than participating in efforts to right the ship of state–what can we call that, other than insane?

Actually, a comment to this blog by JoAnn recently contained an excellent descriptor: these are “Twilight Zone Americans.” 

We haven’t come very far from 1919, when in the wake of the First World War, Yeats wrote The Second Coming, with its often-quoted–and still painfully relevant– lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

I would argue that today, the “best”–i.e., the sane (these days, the bar is low)–don’t necessarily lack conviction. They are  simply uncertain in the face of complexity and ambiguity.  On issues where they recognize shades of gray; they hesitate to act.

As an article on the subject of ambiguity explained, we need only look at history, recent and otherwise, for examples of catastrophic blunders made as a result of leaders’ inability to deal with contingency and ambiguity. And particularly when people are under stress,  faced with what they see as existential threats, their resistance to ambiguity grows strongest. 

We’ve all known people–some famous, some familial–who have gone from one political extreme to another with equally “passionate intensity.” A distant cousin of mine is a perfect example. In college, he was far Left; in later adulthood, equally far Right–and in both cases,  belligerently and rigidly so. These extreme shifts aren’t evidence that True Believers (at least, the leftwing variety) have been “mugged by reality” and come to their senses, as a popular saying a while back had it. Rather, they are people for whom certainty is critically important–the content of their dogma may change, but their need for purity, their need to be on the right side of a bright line, doesn’t. That need overwhelms recognition of inconsistencies (not to mention patently improbable aspects) of whatever worldview they are wholeheartedly embracing.

In 2016, before the election that gave us the assault on national sanity that was and is Donald Trump, The Atlantic had an article titled “How American Politics Went Insane.” The intervening years have underscored much of the article’s argument, especially this observation:

There no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon.

The article described the then-contemporary political reality as chaos, and it’s hard to argue that much has changed. 

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.

 Normalizing chaos ensures that the people’s business cannot be conducted. It’s insane.

Recent reports of state-level political wars–almost all, it must be noted, within the GOP, since the multiplicity of constituencies within the Democratic Party forces Democrats to recognize complexity–are consistent with the described decline, and with the Twilight Zone. Idaho is just one example.

Indiana isn’t all that far behind.

Increasingly, American politics isn’t an argument between partisans who disagree about policy; it isn’t even “warfare without guns” as one popular description has it. It’s a battle between people who still live in the ambiguous and messy real world and the growing number of “passionately intense” Americans who are willing to take up actual arms in defense of demonstrably insane “explanations” of the world.

We live in a scary time.

 

 

 

 

 

The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz. I don’t usually re-read books, but I have twice made an exception for this one, and I still dip into it now and then. Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College, where she teaches history and family studies and directs research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. 

In The Way We Never Were, Coontz uses history to deconstruct many of the myths we Americans tell ourselves. She takes on the belief, for example, that “we always stood on our own two feet” by enumerating the multiple ways in which government programs have long provided structures enabling individual effort. Addressing the fond belief that teenagers didn’t have sex outside of marriage before our degenerate times, she provides statistics on the number of “shotgun” marriages at the turn of the former century. And so forth. As an introduction to the book notes,

Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary, a man’s home has never been his castle, the ‘male breadwinner marriage’ is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today. 

The basic focus of the book was displayed in the subtitle: “American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”

Today, nostalgia for the way we never were has become a primary dividing line between people who live in the real world (and who are, these days, disproportionately Democrats) and angry defenders of a society that never existed (these days, disproportionately Republicans.) That is especially the case with Southerners’ defense of the Lost Cause.

As a recent article from the Atlantic put it,

For so many Americans, “history isn’t the story of what happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as a eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”

In “The War on Nostalgia,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue, staff writer Clint Smith writes about the myth of the Lost Cause, which attempts to recast the Confederacy “as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.” Traveling around the country, Smith visits sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America’s history of slavery, and considers what it would take for all Americans to reckon with the past.

I grew up in small-town America in the 1950s, and have subsequently been astonished by efforts to portray those years as somehow “golden.” Granted, if you were a Protestant White Male, things were pretty good–if you were female, or Black, or Catholic, or (as I was,  one of very few Jews in a very small town), not so much. In college, when I went (briefly) to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill still had separate restrooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites, and I still remember the large billboard announcing to anyone who could read the planned construction of a “restricted” subdivision (i.e., no Jews or Blacks would be permitted to buy there.)

We can see the power of nostalgia in the current, intense resistance to efforts to teach accurate history. Educators and historians are only now coming to terms with the way American history has been white-washed (or perhaps I should spell that White-washed). I took a number of history classes, but I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until two years ago. If the Trail of Tears was taught in any of those classes, I missed it.

Nostalgia can be a comforting way to remember many things: my babies’ first words, a stranger’s kindness at a particularly difficult time, a classroom epiphany, a love affair… There is nothing wrong with a nostalgia based upon actual events, even when we recall those events somewhat selectively– with  their “rough edges” removed, so to speak.

But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience, and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible. 

It’s an indulgence we can’t afford.