As this post goes to press, the United States has been “closed for business” for almost two weeks. To the extent they can be measured, the consequences are enormous. Services upon which many Americans depend are not being rendered. More than three quarters of a million Federal workers are furloughed. Federally backed loans can’t close. Money can’t flow. Markets can’t be lubricated. Big business has taken note, with futures tumbling as the market opened on October 13th, a reflection that Washington’s intransigence has begun to convince traders that something more than standard political chicanery is afoot. Staffs have been slashed across the range of government activities, from quality assurance of food and drugs to weather forecasting . . . from port inspections to national guard drills. National parks are closed. Promises to veterans are being broken, even as bullets fly in an active shooting war. What a mess.
Why is this happening? Well, the popular narrative holds that this is all about a fight over the Affordable Care Act. As the story goes, one side wants the law, duly passed and signed into effect three years ago, to be dutifully implemented by the country’s chief lawmakers . . . despite the narrow conditions of its passage and demonstrable evidence that it’s not ready for prime time. The other side, unfazed by 42 failed attempts to repeal it, mentally impervious to a Supreme Court ruling instructing them to essentially “shut up and color,” and apparently unworried about the potential damage to the rule of law created by flouting the law as a means of coercing change . . . has grabbed the temple of Congress and pulled down with force, determined to drag the entire institution into ruin if it can’t prevail fair and square. The two sides have conspired to run our government aground after years of playing slalom among the rocky shoals. They’ve succeeded in making us an international laughingstock while we continue to fracture, crumble, and burn internally. Or so goes the popular narrative, which essentially captures the truth at one certain level of analysis. But to see what’s really happening, back out a few levels and look at the big picture.
What’s really happening is that our government is breaking apart. Snapping under strain. Finally losing any semblance of regular order. Decades of insidious corrosion have culminated . . . we now behold the tragic, pathetic result of citizen inattentiveness. Congress is no longer capable of normal order. Crises are manufactured at regular intervals, creating a playground for posturing, overheated rhetoric, and faux brinksmanship. Pundits are raking in record profits as we look upon this scrambled heap of nonsense, often bemoaning a situation we’re peculiarly responsible for enabling, if not directly fashioning through our indifference and fomentation of mischief. For a good long while now, we’ve watched and shaken our heads with a sort of mild, smirking disapproval as our elected representatives have betrayed our interests. We’ve allowed it to continue, sometimes even encouraging it for the sake of entertainment. We’ve not demanded enough accountability. We’ve not made it clear to our elected representatives that they work for us . . . indeed, that they depend on us for their jobs. What now victimizes us is a monster of our own creation; we’ve long since taken leave of the idea that we own our government, instead choosing to set it off as some sort of entity unto itself. This is a dangerous notion, and one that cannot stand. The government is an extension of the people, not a body apart.
In reconciling political maladies, Americans love to revisit the designs of the Founding Fathers, and this is often a useless exercise given the contextual changes that render many quaint notions of the 18th century inapplicable to contemporary discussion. But the trick is to discard what no longer holds while hanging on to what will always hold — those timeless, ingenious elements of the founding vision that must never be let go. The framers were seldom more ingenious than in their creation of a government incapable of thriving without an earnest link to the people. In this, they were clear in their designs; they sought to create a system that gave each voter a direct influence over representation in Congress at the Federal level. They wanted representatives to carry always in their minds and hearts the aspirations of their constituents. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 52:
“The definition of the right of suffrage is very justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government. It was incumbent on the convention, therefore, to define and establish this right in the Constitution. To have left it open for the occasional regulation of the Congress, would have been improper for the reason just mentioned. To have submitted it to the legislative discretion of the States, would have been improper for the same reason; and for the additional reason that it would have rendered too dependent on the State governments that branch of the federal government which ought to be dependent on the people alone.”
Dependent on the people alone. This is a critical idea. Today, Congress is not dependent on the people alone, if it is dependent on them at all. Congressional elections are now conducted in two stages; first, candidates are required to raise money. Lots of money. Gross, exorbitant amounts of money. Enough money to feed entire nations. Enough money to build schools, drill wells, or launch satellites. Enough money in one election cycle to buy other nations outright. These gross, exorbitant sums are spent solely on transient communications . . . and they create nothing. They add nothing. They employ almost no one. But while achieving so little, the money in our modern elections manages to inflict disproportionate harm by warping the political process. Would-be elected representatives find themselves altering their behavior, shaping their ideas, and shifting their rhetoric in order to compete favorably in the contest for money . . . because they need it to even stand a chance in the real election. In other words, they are dependent not upon the people alone, but also upon the monied interests that fund their elections. This might preserve electoral fidelity and governmental functionality if these monied interests represented a broad range of Americans, but this isn’t the case. 60% of political action funding in the 2012 election came from 0.5% of the population. Our elections are being bought and paid for by those few rich enough to advance their interests through a corruption of the baseline vision embraced by the framers; the rest of us have been rendered ancillary, and will only see our interests fulfilled when they happen to align with the interests of the lobbyists and monied elite. That is, until we change things.
That brings us back to the shutdown. We’re in this mess because our government is carrying out the dictates of narrow interests instead of working for all of us. 8 in 10 Americans want the government reopened; in a properly functioning representative republic, that would be the end of the discussion, and the government would be reopened immediately, lest elected officials fear for their jobs. The proof our system has been corrupted by crony influence is in its persistent malfunctioning in the face of popular disapproval.
For me, this has led to the conclusion that we will not be able to fix anything . . . to address any issue on either side of the political aisle . . . until we strike at the root of political dysfunction by getting the money out of our elections. This shutdown will eventually end, but more dysfunction is already taking root in its shadow. We need fundamental reform in our political system, in the form of citizen-funded elections that make Congress once again dependent upon the people alone. If you agree with me, or even if you think you might agree with more convincing, I ask you to do two things.
First, watch this TED talk by Lawrence Lessig. If you love this republic, this is an essential 18 minutes that will change the way you regard your relationship with government. When you’re done, you will want to join www.rootstrikers.org and be part of a grass-roots movement to restore citizen-funded elections.
Second, join me in co-sponsoring legislation to end corruption in American elections. If passed into law, the American Anti-Corruption Act would:
• Stop politicians from taking money from those they regulate
• Limit superPAC contributions and “coordination”
• Prevent job offers as bribes (revolving door)
• Call everyone who lobbies a lobbyist
• No fundraising while congress is in session
• Limit lobbyist donations by 80%
• End secret money
• Disclose “bundling”
• Enforce the rules
• Create a small donor tax rebate/voucher
If you believe in these reforms, click here to sign on to my team at United Re:Public, and take a couple minutes to watch the video.
Fixing our electoral process is the Number One call to action of our time. If we intend to bequeath to our sons and daughters a nation worth preserving, the time to act is now. This is not a democrat or republican issue . . . 80% of Americans from across the political spectrum believe money and politics need to be pulled apart. This is as nonpartisan and pro-American as it gets. Join me. Let’s pick up the mantle of change and make our government hear this message.
Posted by Tony Carr on October 13th, 2013.