Right now there’s a big headline at Huffington Post: Senators Who Opposed Bill Received Top Dollar From Tobacco Industry.
If I were to cite similar stories of the corruption of money and its quid pro quo in our nations capital, I would drown this blog. Another big headline has appeared recently: Blue Dog Dems Rake in Health Care Contributions, Protest Exclusion from Debate.
The corruption of our political system is obvious to anyone with a pulse. Yet campaign finance reform isn’t even on the radar in most progressive circles. Why? Well it may have something to do with the delusion that many in the progressive left have been selling for years now.
I went to a book signing with Kos when his first book, Crashing the Gate came out. His big message that afternoon to the 40 or so people in attendance was that we have to be the Democratic party that we want. His big pitch was for everyone in the new netroots revolution to get superactive in their local Democratic parties, become precinct captains, run for local office etc. Others pushing this strategy were Jerome Armstrong, Chris Bowers and a whole slew of bloggers who had gained notoriety online.
The underlying assumption in this strategy is that us Netroots Democrats were somehow, inherently better than the thousands of already existing volunteers, precinct captains and local politicians. And that if we all flooded the party at the grassroots level, donning our orange hats, it would become a party that is a reflection of our Netrootsy betterness. As though our current grassroots Democrats were the problem.
As one who has actually been involved in local Democratic politics for many years, I saw the fallacy of this logic. While it is always better to have more boots on the ground, it is delusional to assume that netroots activists are somehow immune to the same systemic corruptions that plague our party. Again, it’s always good to get involved, but the idea that by us being the Democratic party that we want we can bring about a better party is a fantasy.
The next big delusion being sold by the our netroots leaders was that we can create the party we want by electing better Democrats. This strategy is often referred to as “more and better Dems.” Getting more Dems was the mantra of the Bush years where Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. This was an easy sell – anything to remove power from the most transparently criminal GOP in history.
But after the 2006 midterm elections, and Democrats seized back Congress, the netroots was struck by a hard and cold reality: The Democrats we had worked so hard to put in office were, on such critical issues as economic justice, constitutional rights, investigating the White House and our illegal war in Iraq, not much better than the Republicans we had just defeated. So after one failure after another, and as the policies of the Bush administration continued unimpeded, a new mantra began to emerge: better Dems.
This idea was that the big bloggers would become bundlers of sorts, through their online networks, to raise money for politicians who had the progressive stamp of approval. So in 2006, Actblue for example, an organization founded by Kos and other netroots players, picked 19 candidates to rally around. Most of them lost. But of the ones who won, there’s a pretty good probability that the progressive netroots helped take these races over the finish line. But how has it worked out since? Are these candidates the voices for progressive change that we had hoped? Far from it. On a whole host of issues, from the war in Iraq, to the bankers bailout, to FISA, to the Mortgage cramdown to aid homeowners, these senators have been disappointing at best, and downright traitorous to the cause at worst.
Kos was questioned a while back about these disappointments. His response was more of the same:
Systemic change is a long-term process with lots of setbacks. I have a whole chapter on how you have to take baby steps. Etcetera, etcetera.
He went on to note the conservative movement’s vision and patience. “For them, it was a 30-year process to take control of the government. And had they not been so corrupt and incompetent in running the government, you know, we’d still be playing catch-up. ”
That sounds good – spend the next 30 years building a new progressive party. Except for one problem. It too is a fantasy. The progressive movement is fundamentally different from the conservatives. We want to take money away from big business and the super wealthy. Conservatives want to do the opposite. Take health care for example. The public option would be a trillion dollar loss to the health care business. And while I see no evidence that most progressive see it this way, I can assure you the health care crowd and their proxies in Congress do.
Understanding that almost all of politics is really about money is a subject for another essay. But here let me just point out that the conservative takeover, which actually began 40 years ago, was a deliberate, well coordinated campaign started by corporate leaders who were mortified by liberal gains in the 60s. Google the Powell Memo if you want to know more. But suffice it to say that the path of conservative ascension and any possible progressive rise to power are not the least bit similar. These corporate forces, from the Business Roundtable to the Chamber of Commerce, to countless PR fronts and think tanks, have endless resources, control most of the media, and display a ruthlessness that no good intentioned progressive could match.
Thinking that we could somehow replicate the conservative’s rise to power, without the pocketbooks of the wealthiest corporations on Earth at our disposal, is ridiculous. The only thing we have on our side that can match that kind of spending power is the truth.
But despite the obvious failure, visible every day, to move an inch closer to anything resembling a progressive policies on these most critical issues (economy, national security, wars, constitutional rights), the same crowd is still selling the same prescription. I hate to keep picking on Kos. But he’s front and center on a lot of bad ideas. And on the worst idea of all of them all, he is downright nasty. That is campaign finance reform.
The single worst idea the netroots captains have been selling is that we can overcome the corrupting influence of money by replacing it with small contributions. But Kos and a couple other big netroots bloggers have gone further. They’ve actually attacked campaign finance reformers in broad strokes. It is true, some campaign finance reform proposals are absurd. And Markos and others are right to go after these proposals – such as trying to limit who can make political videos in the age of Youtube.
But they do a disservice by conflating those with really bad ideas about the media’s role in our political process and who should have access to it, and those who just want to make it a crime to bribe a politician. Here is Kos spewing the most nonsensical, misinformed, idiocy I’ve ever read on the issue – excluding Mitch McConnell:
From a Daily Kos entry titled, Scrapping Campaign Finance Reform
Finally, there’s the boneheaded belief that money is inherently evil, and thus getting rid of it is the highest purpose. The problem, of course, isn’t money, it’s the source of the money and the ability of money to corrupt government. That fear is obviously real.
The original solution, embodied by campaign finance efforts, was to eliminate money from politics. It seemed like a noble goal, but over 30 years after first enacted, CFR has been an abject failure. Big money continues to find ways to enter and corrupt the system. The Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech (and it is, no matter how much that may rankle many of you), and as such, drastic restrictions in its political application are limited. I used to be a huge CFR supporter, but it requires ideological rigidity (the likes we see on the Right) to continue pretending that CFR is a valid solution to the problem. Reality has shown, quite clearly, that it simply does not work.
But there is another solution — people-powered campaigns. That $20 or $100 contribution that we send candidates buy us no special access. It doesn’t guarantee that our pork is inserted in the latest appropriations bill. It may make politicians more responsive to us as a community, but responsiveness is not the same as buying our way into the system. Being heard is not the same as using the government to financially reward our private business dealings. (There is no “Bloggers Tax Relief Act of 2008” on the books.)
So one would think that Obama’s millions of small dollar supporters are a good thing — they lessen his dependence on corrupting big-money contributers and has allowed him to swear off PAC contributions and cut lobbyists out of the picture. This financial independence has given him governing independence — no industry or interest group will be able to hold his agenda hostage.
But, and here we go full circle, this financial independence has a cost — millions of regular people are now participating in the process. Organic farmers from Montana and grizzled combat vets and authors from Virginia are winning elections against establishment favorites on the strength of people-powered campaigns. John McCain, best friend to the elite “reformer” community, is under assault from who?
Kos begins with the first absurdity: We’ve tried CFR, and it hasn’t worked. This is only true if your definition of campaign finance reform is to keep allowing our politicians to be bribed, but change the rules every now and then to create the illusion that the problem is being solved. The last round of CFR was the McCain-Feingold Act. Does anyone really believe that that legislation did anything to reduce the corrupting influence of money? I they do, I have a bridge in Alaska to sell them.
He moves directly on to absurdity #2: giving politicians money is “speech” as ruled by the Supreme Court in Buckley vs. Valeo. This ruling has as much credibility as Bush vs. Gore. What kind of speech allows only the wealthy to speak? Free speech as protected by the First Amendment? No. Very expensive speech.
This is as far as I’ve gotten on what was supposed to be part 1. I may or may not finish it.