Losing Hope in the Political Process
Politics in this country got a whole lot messier this week for two reasons: the election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts to the Senate, and the Supreme Court's decision to tear back well-established campaign finance laws. Neither bodes well for our prospects of restoring faith in government or tackling the litany of critical challenges facing our nation, including salvaging the economy and building a health care system that works for working Americans.
First, the perhaps less spectacular event, but probably more lasting, was the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. The divided Court broadly ruled that corporations and other organizations like unions can spend as much as they want from their general funds to support or oppose political candidates. As with most controversial decisions, supporters of the ruling will defend the Court as staying true to the Constitution, while opponents will charge the Court with blatant activism. Whatever the motivations, however, the effects of the decision will be decidedly political.
Businesses, unions, and other organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are now free to pour as much money as they choose attacking their opponents. Now, that it's open season and you can bet that the deluge of political commercials we'll see leading up to the midterm elections will be like nothing we've seen before. In today's savage political climate, the types of ads that will flood our airwaves will probably be nothing short of vicious. Parties, candidates, consultants, lobbyists, and special interests have all figured out that making people scared and angry is one of the best ways to get them to give money and get to the polls. But it's also one of the best ways to degrade the public trust in our government and political system.
Another great way to erode public trust in our institutions is by giving the impression that special interests control a corrupt political process where elected officials are concerned only with reelection, not governing. The public clearly already has that impression; a campaign finance system that opens the floodgates of corporate and special interest money can only make the perception into a bitterly clear reality. Corporations may not even need to run vicious ads - they might only have to threaten to flood the local market with attack ads to get elected officials desperate for reelection to vote one way or another.
The smaller the market, the easier it will be for corporations or unions or other interest organizations to pressure the process. It's hard to believe, but there are still parts of the country where retail politics are the norm and state legislators or even statewide candidates spend only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars on campaigns. With their new blank check, bigger organizations won't even bat an eye spending ten, fifty, or a hundred times that amount to attack opponents.
Then again, it's not like these groups have had much trouble funneling money into our political system before - federal lobbying reports filed the day before the Supreme Court's decision show that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $80 million lobbying Congress in the final quarter of 2009, bringing the total for the year to $144.5 million. Indeed, the Chamber spent $1.6 million running ads to help elect Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts to the Senate.
The election of Scott Brown to the Senate is a blow to restoring any faith in government not necessarily because of the Senator-elect himself, or even the election of a Republican more generically. Instead, it's a blow because it seems that voters were trying to send a message - that they were unhappy with the health care bill or the way the government is (or isn't) working, or with politics in general. But, if anything, Mr. Brown's election will clog up the political process more. Republicans will be emboldened to stonewall legislation and Democrats desperate to hold onto seats will hesitate, try to strike more deals, and probably abandon some priorities all together. Neither response bodes well prospects of any meaningful action on important issues.
When government grinds to a halt, people grow more and more disillusioned. Democrats and Republicans have both learned recently that winning elections is easier than governing. Indeed, it increasingly seems like the parties care only about getting elected. As public frustration and disillusionment climbs to new highs, and as the influence of special interests fuels the attacks and distrust, both parties might soon also learn that endless attacks and exploiting fear and anger to win elections today won't get them anywhere tomorrow. Unfortunately, we'll also be stuck with a crippled economy, sinking health care system, and few prospects for solutions.