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This Side of Democracy

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Ignorance and poverty, and the lack of material means generally, prevent people from exercising their rights and from taking advantage of [opportunities]. But rather than counting these and similar obstacles as restricting a person's liberty, we count them as affecting the worth of liberty, that is, the usefulness to persons of their liberties. ~ John Rawls

As it is an election year amidst the Great Recession, talk of the American plutocracy is very much in vogue. But to label the situation as unique belies centuries of history. A politico-economic class structure has long been an operative distorting force in American government; and long has the value of civic expression and democratic agency for the many been seen as dwarfed by the clout and privilege of a wealthy few.

Every American has the right to speak out, to express views, and to serve as an advocate for all manner of issues and prospective leaders. But having rights doesn't necessarily mean they're valuable, or even useful at all. At times, many ordinary Americans feel as though they're just shooting blanks -- electorally speaking of course -- and with each new doubter in the process a vicious cycle ensues; the discouraged classes grow more cynical and abandon the civic process altogether, while select special interests exploit and occupy the space left behind. Campaign finance can be dry stuff, but it is ignored at one's peril, as it is the current election funding regime -- and the perverse incentives it fosters -- that undergirds much of the integrity of our entire political structure and the policies it propounds.

American democracy is in an era defined by political and economic strife, where the calls for reform are desperate and often shrill. This is of little surprise. The flaws in the system are obvious when one looks to the lukewarm reforms over the past year in health care and financial regulation, and the altogether abandoned cap and trade effort -- all of which began with lofty promises, but ultimately pleased few when codified. It is a heady experience to think what would have come to pass had reforms already been in place two years ago to dilute the codependency between lawmakers and their benefactors. Millions of individual small donors helped usher Barack Obama into the White House. What if the same could be said for the 535 esteemed members of the United States Congress?

Of course, when the many are drowned out by a plutocratic few, the answer has always been to simply pile on more regulations, only to watch the courts inexorably shoot each down. Opponents of big government stand the line against opponents of big business, with each side exchanging the same stalemated arguments of corruption in government on the one hand and free speech on the other.

The 2008 Obama campaign made unprecedented gains in activating small donor participation through new media techniques that circumvented traditional barriers. But Organizing for America remains an exception, rather than the rule. While a full third of Obama's general election contributions came from donors who gave $200 or less, for John McCain and Hillary Clinton it was but a fifth. And in 2004, for George W. Bush and John Kerry, it was only a fourth and a fifth, respectively. In the meantime, 2009 saw over 13,000 registered lobbyists swarming the nation's Capitol with a record overall expenditure of $3.5 billion.

That same rate is on track to be repeated this year, with overall lobbying expenditures as of July 26 totaling $1.78 billion. In particular, lobbying expenditures by the health and financial industries have skyrocketed. Their tactics are well known. The IMF's Marcos Chamon and Stockholm University's Ethan Kaplan describe in their "Iceberg Theory of Campaign Contributions" how the bulk of special interest influence comes from undisclosed threats (made far more credible by the Citizens United ruling), rather than disclosed largess. We'll give a thousand bucks to your reelection campaign, but if we're not pleased with your vote, we'll give your challenger ten times that when reelection time rolls around.

Elections are expensive, and they aren't getting any cheaper. The average cost of winning a U.S. House seat tripled between 1986 and 2008, from $359,577 to $1,362,239, respectively. And in the Senate it jumped almost 50 percent between 1986 and 2006, from $6,025,962 to $9,435,839, respectively (with a slight dip back down in 2008 to $7,500,052). At the time of this writing, the total cost of the 2010 campaign season is already placed at just under $3 billion. In 2008, which included a historic presidential campaign, it capped out around $5.28 billion total.

But more important than the sheer numbers -- which are unprecedented in scale in American history -- is from whence the money hails. For all House candidates between 2007 and 2008, political action committees (PACs) and the wealthiest individual donors contributed, on average, about 70 percent of each campaign's total intake. And for all Congressional candidates between 2003 and 2006, individual small donors giving $200 or less amounted to an average of only 13 percent.

With such little monetary input from average lower- and middle-class Americans, it is little wonder that Congress consistently passes such ham-handed regulations and munificent subsidies for special interest industries. Harvard University's Lawrence Lessig has cataloged clear-cut examples in issue areas ranging from intellectual property law to nutrition to climate change where extant public policy runs counter to both scientific consensus and public opinion alike. There are laws and standards on the books that literally just do not make sense without a butcher's thumb on the scale. Consider a classic case: the American sugar industry. According to Chamon and Kaplan, "the [U.S.] sugar program led to a net gain of over one billion dollars to the sugar industry in 1998. However, the sugar industry's total campaign contributions in that election cycle were a mere $2.8 million, less than 0.3% of that net gain." The actual benefit of the subsidizing the largest American sugar producers remains unknown, but all those small farmers who have been effectively crowded out of the market presumably have a long list of grievances.

For many campaign finance reform activists, the prime (but so far unattainable) solution is to do away with electoral fundraising altogether, through a fully public funding regime at the federal level. With the burden of fund-raising gone, incumbents -- whose salary taxpayers pay anyway -- could spend their time actually governing and legislating for their constituents, rather than hosting $1,000 luncheons and groveling at the feet of the most pecunious lobbyist bundlers and donors. Campaigns would focus on actually speaking with voters about pertinent issues, rather than striking backroom deals.

Of course, this solution is easier said than done. Other than for the presidency, fully publicly funded elections have never enjoyed even remotely enough political support on the federal level. What incumbent senator or congressman would willingly break those lucrative ties he or she has forged over the years? Most measures that seek to control the flow of money into politics and elections are restrictive, and can easily be used to paint a politician as an enemy of business or free expression, rather than a battler of corruption. And why spoil that cushy job on Wall Street or K Street waiting for you after you leave public office?

Moreover, campaign finance regulations are not cut-and-dry protective measures that always benefit the little guy, such as consumer protection rules or FDA standards. They can often work against those they are meant to serve. The greater the complexity in campaign finance statutes, the harder it is for Average Joe to navigate the system. The unintended consequence is empowerment of the moneyed few that can still afford the overpriced beltway pettifogger who knows the ropes.

The current, renewed stalemate -- especially in the aftermath of Citizens United where legislative efforts to brunt that decision's blow have fallen far short -- is quite familiar. The Roberts Court is making it abundantly clear that free speech trumps all else in its rulings. According to Richard Briffault, Columbia Law School's Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation and a noted authority on the Court's history of campaign finance rulings, the Court has, "abandoned [the] view that in campaign finance cases the Court should reconcile and balance free speech values with other concerns like political integrity, the promotion of democracy, and respect for Congress's efforts to balance these goals. Instead, Roberts's opinion framed the case entirely from a First Amendment perspective. It was not about the rules governing the corporate role in financing elections but simply 'about political speech.'"

Thus, for the time being, there is a pragmatic argument for abandoning attempts to reinstate restrictive measures on political speech, regardless of whether one speaks from his mouth or from his wallet. In the absence of a Constitutional amendment, the effort to stymie the flow of certain monies into elections and politics is simply futile. But neither can the status quo stand. The Constitutional liberties of the many should not suffer a de facto depression in value because of political access granted to the wealthy few.

One answer, growing in popularity, is to approach the problem from the opposite end. A semblance of balance can be realized by activating small donors; or, as the Campaign Finance Institute's Michael Malbin, a leading voice for small donor encouragement, says, "what is needed probably has less to do with squeezing down the top than building up the bottom." According to his organization, if a mere 10 percent of voters give $75 to a campaign, it would total to $1.65 billion, almost 40 percent of the total expense for all federal elections (using 2004 figures).

There are a number of simple tricks to achieve this, some of which are already being experimented with by a few States -- such as Ohio, Arizona, and Minnesota -- but which deserve far more attention at the federal level and on state ballot initiatives.

One is multiplicative matching that applies only to small donations. If you give $100, the state will throw in $500; but if you're giving in the thousands, towards the legal limits, you enjoy no such enhancement. The value of small donors' speech is amplified exponentially, and at little real cost. Another option is a tax voucher that rewards political participation for lower- and middle- income donors. If you meet certain tax bracket parameters, then you will qualify for tax rebates matching or exceeding political contributions. Again, this simple measure would amplify and encourage small donor participation, with very little public expense and without violating anyone else's purported First Amendment rights.

Traditional barriers for campaigns should be weakened and broken so that seeding a political campaign does not require gobs of money. Through specifically purposed subsidies to television networks, campaigns could be exempt from the exorbitant cost of running primetime ads. Access to broadband should be viewed as a right for all, rather than a privilege. With broadband access, lower- and middle-class voters and donors can be reached for next to nothing, and grassroots movements centered on pertinent causes can emerge from thin air through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social networking.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has dropped from the first-ranking broadband country a decade ago to the 16th today, according to rankings from the International Telecommunications Union. And it's not just a lack of access (or 'penetration' to use the industry lingo) -- broadband in the States is also far more expensive on a per capita basis than in places like Canada, Denmark or Taiwan because there is not adequate competition. While trust-busting the telecom oligarchy would be exceedingly difficult, engineering ways to enhance information for consumers for more informed choices is not. The Federal Election Commission has a wealth of information that need only be distilled into a reader-friendly format on a public site for all to access. And in addition to this simple measure, voters should push members of both parties in Congress to support the Obama administration's National Broadband plan.

Beyond the problem of special interest money in elections is civic engagement more generally. For a country that prides itself as the world's primus inter pares democracy, a 50 percent average voting rate is alarmingly low. Most don't think his or her vote will change anything. So why not create an economic incentive through a tax refund for voting? Unlike the controversial Poll Tax of the 19th Century, used to disenfranchise black voters, this would take the opposite approach by creating an incentive rather than a disincentive. The crucial difference between incentivizing civic engagement and restricting it is that the latter is unconstitutional while the former just makes sense.

The salient solution to the overall problem is to address the messaging away from arguably unconstitutional, restrictive approaches to measures that encourage and incentivize everyone, regardless of socio-economic factors. Faith in government and the value of exercising one's liberties must be restored. People should enjoy dividends for caring enough to participate. But to do so legislators and the administration must do all they can to convince the people that one's vote actually matters and that one's liberties have practical worth, irrespective of the size of one's wallet. Saying you'll take down the fat cats always sounds better than saying you'll enhance access for the lower- and middle class, but the former never really works. It's rhetorical gold that translates into policy lead.

A retreat from burdensome regulations coupled with efforts to enhance wider civic involvement should appeal to opponents of big government and opponents of big business alike. At this juncture, it is the ideal -- and indeed, the only feasible -- approach. If such efforts fail at the federal level then they should at least be implemented in the states through local pressure on state and municipal governments or through ballot initiatives. Redefining the standard locally, in enough places, could then trickle up to national acceptance, similar to the trend seen in same-sex marriage. In his new book, Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb tells the story of Alison Smith, an average citizen from Maine who fought for and won the passage of that state's Clean Elections system. People just like Alison are everywhere; they just need to see that there is a way forward.

The ideas presented above are but a few. But if our current leaders can change the message towards encouragement instead of discouragement, then the possibilities for even more practical fixes are limitless. Or in the straightforward words of the late Doris 'Granny D' Haddock, another average citizen like Alison Smith who became a national icon when she marched across the country at the ripe age of 90 to challenge the role of money in elections: "If we are to retain our democracy, we must proceed in a new direction."

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