Monday, February 14, 2011

Money in Politics – A Potential Strategy for its Removal?

It can be argued that the influx of money in politics has always been a troubling issue with regards to equality and can logically be viewed as an affront to the very nature of democracy itself. On January 21, 2010 the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that for all intensive purposes provided a deathblow for proponents of financial reform in politics. Citizens United vs. the United States of America outlined what has become the popular refrain ‘Corporations are people’. Moving beyond the general absurdity of this contention,

Also recently eliminated was any legitimate requirement for ‘these new people’ to identify themselves when ‘exercising’ their free speech. Future Congressional prospects to alter this ‘masking’ element to the ruling seem unlikely in the near or even long-term future. However, despite how generally silly and cliché the overly optimistic statement ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ may be, in this particular situation its application may be appropriate for those supporting financial reform.

The prevailing strategy so far by the financial reform movement has been to limit the influx of funds by applying a donation ceiling in an attempt to equalize the two power channels of a capitalistic democracy. To understand the rationality behind this strategy a little background is appropriate. The trademark notion of a democracy is ‘one person one vote’ implying equal influence from all voting parties regardless of position or standing. However, the evolution of the political system in the United States has created an environment where any elected position of significant consequence demands a large amount of money to purchase advertisement and conduct other publicity activities in order to have a reasonable chance at election. This monetary demand places an additional motivational incentive on potential candidates to abide by the wishes of those that have the ability to donate large sums of money at multiple instances.

Thus, while the initial notion of democracy is technically still accurate, it is difficult to believe that individuals who donate more money to fund a particular politician’s run at office will have equal influence to those that donate no money. Therefore, this new election environment has created two tiers of influence: the equal influence provided by voting and an unequal influence where individuals of wealth have significant influence over those that do not have wealth.

Unfortunately due to the flaws in the voting process of an indirect democracy (few/no termination clauses, few abilities to recall, no dishonesty termination, etc.) and the general lack of attentiveness of most voters, in real applied terms the equal influence element is seriously lacking in overall effectiveness relative to the unequal influence element. Due to this inequality some have proposed and even seen the successful passage of legislation to control the influence of money. Sadly as witnessed in Citizens United it is difficult to expect these money ceilings to remain for long periods of time because they do not serve the interests of those in power.

Some would make the argument that the failure of the voting process to neutralize this monetary influence conduit is the fault of citizens and those making large contributions to political parties or individuals should not be punished for this failure. This reasoning is flawed on two different fronts. First, the lack of and limitation of honesty in the political process significantly hinders the total expression of voting power. For example a politician can make statement A to the public, but actually support an opposing position and as long as the public is not able to discover that opposing belief the politician can be elected on a basis of false pretenses. This reality is especially relevant when the position of a corporation and large political donor may be in direct contrast with the position of the general public. How can voting have any real power when a politician can simply lie about his/her position until elected?

The counterargument to the above premise is a rather weak one. The only real logical argument is that in the case of a fraudulent politician, the public needs to take the philosophy of ‘fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’ and when the politician comes up for re-election vote him/her out of office. The flaw in this reasoning is that any viable candidate must be available for replacement. Sadly in the current political system there will typically only be the potential for one viable opposition candidate as other candidates are pushed to the fringes of the process. Even if the lack of choice were rescinded the same initial concerns regarding truth would still be unchecked.

The second flaw in the above ‘it is the fault of voters not money’ argument is the very psychological nature of the players involved in the process. Most large donor individuals/corporations have a single principle in mind when donating money to a particular candidate: making money. There is typically no concern for any social issues or utilitarian elements that are apart from that main objective. This ‘single issue donor mentality’ gives an effective focus to the donation process eliminating the benefits of logical analysis.

However, because most voters are not rich and powerful, their lives are affected more by the myriad of decisions that a representing official has to make, thus it is illogical for these voters to be single issue voters (despite the fact that some are anyways). Therefore, it is difficult to expect voters to sacrifice all other issues to ensure that the large donors do not receive support for their single issue. This single issue element also ties to the trust issue above in that corporations have a black/white point regarding whether or not support should be given to a particular candidate while even if a candidate lies about one particular issue their overall platform may force a non-wealthy voter to continue to support them.

The principle tactic used by those fighting money in politics and other avenues is the belief in ‘sunshine’ or transparency. Proponents believe that by creating environments where individuals that donate large sums of money must make those donations in a completely transparent manner and those that use the money must outline how it was used it will lead to an outcome where more immoral actions will be restrained reducing the overall negative influence of money in politics. However, the problem with this strategy is that it does not address the saturation mindset. It stands to reason that most people believe that all candidates are taking money from some form of special interest and/or large corporate donors (even the small third party ones regardless of whether or not they actually are), so no candidate is ‘clean’. Therefore, without offering an effective way to remove money from the system, it is unlikely that this ‘transparency’ strategy will work.

Some proponents of that strategy may cry fowl at such an analysis citing that if individuals are made aware of monetary donations and expenditures then they could seek out the individuals that are receive no or less money and characterize those individuals as ‘not beholden to special interests’. The concern with this rationality is that receipt of donated money becomes a single issue. It is difficult to envision a scenario where an individual votes against a candidate that shares his/her viewpoint on a wide variety of issues if it is revealed that the candidate has taken a lot of money from special interest groups.

Therefore, ‘taking money from special interest groups’ will be regarded as just one of many issues that is considered by a voter when deciding on which candidate to vote for. Unfortunately due to the fact that messaging and access is heavily influenced by money it seems very probable that very few candidates will refrain from taking special interest money when available to them, regardless of any transparency requirements. If this scenario comes to pass then with every viable candidate feeling it necessary to take money, the previous public psychological assertion become true: everyone is taking money, everyone is dirty, thus it does not matter who takes money.

This above rationality may explain why various polling identifies 70% - 85% of people, regardless of political affiliation, believing special interest money is a big problem, but very few of these individuals do anything significant to address the issue. This unwillingness to act in mass also severely reduces any real possibility of forming a group to combat special interest money with ‘public non-government derived’ money because special interest groups will almost always have more to devote to a given political race. Remember special interest groups view giving money to a given political candidate as an investment, its sole goal is to create further wealth.

The reality of the situation is that it will be almost impossible to expel money from the political system and fighting money with money also does not appear to be a valid option. Returning to the ‘silver lining’ of Citizens United, currently the ruling hammered the last nail in any feasible reality where money could be significantly limited or even removed from politics, thus instead of chasing the highly unlikely scenario of, ‘money out of politics’, individuals can now address new more viable strategies to limit the influence of money. Realistically based on the present conditions the best strategy is to make money irrelevant. Making money irrelevant involves making voters care about what the candidate stands for beyond their party affiliation.

One important element in combating money is to understand that its primary purpose is to maximize information exposure. The real advantage to money is that it takes advantage of interest and time limitations possessed by the electorate. Instead of depending on a potential voter taking the initiative to look up a particular issue on a given candidate, money allows the candidate and his/her supporters to present that information directly to the voter. Unfortunately this presentation is frequently carried out in such a way that the core message is prone to misinterpretations or even outright lies that favor a particular candidate.

Clearly there are issues that voters care about that move beyond party affiliation. The means to break through voter apathy demands tapping into issues which voters care about and using those issues to defeat any influence of money. No matter how much money a candidate spends it is very difficult to expect a voter to vote in favor of a candidate that has opposing positions on a variety of relevant issues. The sticking point in such an information strategy is the fact that different people view different issues as important therefore it would be difficult to spearhead any direct engagement of the electorate because that would take a lot of money, money that is not available to non-bias third-party organizations. Therefore, the simplicity of the information disseminated by media mediums for party sponsored material must be combated with simplicity and accuracy itself.

The lack of knowledge regarding what is important to the electorate makes everything of significance important. Therefore, all information relevant to each issue of significance for a given candidate must be collected and presented in a way that potential voters can compare that information against their opponents.

The medium for this presentation would be best on a website, but because not all individuals have access to the Internet individuals should have the ability to request information through the mail; the information available would be voting records for those that have served in State or Federal level and any public statement they have made; each piece of information placed on this website must have an associated citation confirming the authenticity of the information; the major issues will be Education, Economy, Health Care, Social Security, Foreign Affairs, etc. With all of this information available voters will be able to use a candidate’s own opinion to differentiate between candidates increasing the probability that potential voters will identify which candidate will best serve their interests.

While the compilation of this information in one single place is important it is equally important to design a simple user interface that will make accessing this information very easy so that individuals are encouraged to use the site and access the information. Accessing this information is largely dependent on the simplicity of the interface. One example is as followed:

The home page should consist of a large map of the United States with a mission statement and instructions below the map and finally a search box in the upper right corner. The instructions would simply direct users to click on a state of interest to begin while the mission statement would inform the user that the goal of the site is to provide non-bias non-partisan information regarding public officials in effort to identify their current and future voting stances. The search box is specifically designed to search politician names to speed searching if only a specific individual is of interest.

Clicking on a state will bring up a list of districts within that state. Each district is flanked by all villages, towns and cities that fall within the boarders of the particular district so users do not have to look up which district they are a part of if they do not know. Clicking on a district will bring up a list of all elected government positions within that district, the individual currently holding that position and, when the timing is appropriate, candidates that are running for those positions. Incumbencies or political affiliations are not listed. Clicking on a name will bring up a list of the major issues mentioned above and clicking on one of those issues will bring up a list of sub-section issues that make up that major issue. Clicking on a sub-section issue will open the final list of statements and votes, if any, made by that politician relative to that sub-section issue. All statements will be organized in their entirety with an associated and accurate question (if applicable), which triggered the statement. Citations will be given as either cited references if the content is not available online or hotlinks if it is.

For this site to reach its full potential all news media organizations must agree not to lock any of the citation links behind any form of pay-wall. Also it is important the information is topic sorted, but remains individual centric. The ability to directly compare multiple candidates on the basis of a single political position could foster the development of more single-issue voters. Creating more single-issue voters would be counterproductive because the emphasis on that single issue tends to eliminate consideration of any other issue when voting which will more than likely produce results that will overall be detrimental to society when electing officials. If individuals wish to do the work comparing a single issue among candidates so be it, but by focusing on individual centricity it will at least expose those voters to other political issues and force the voter to do legitimate work to be a single issue voter.

Overall it is important to understand that money in politics from a candidate’s perspective is all about information distribution. Therefore, money can be countered by opposing information regardless of whether or not it is derived from money. Recalling the advantages money provides, the structure of society itself provides an obstacle to its efficiency. Due to the costs associated with information distribution through wide-reaching media, the popular choice with money because of its targeting effects, issues must be addressed with broad strokes. This generality can be countered with specificity and accuracy hence the goal of the above idea. However, even if such a website is created publicity is an important final element. If individuals do not know the site exists then its existence is meaningless. Thus if such a site is ever created, a significant publicity push would be required to introduce the site.

No comments:

Post a Comment