A lot of the cynical hopelessness in progressive media and cyberspace these days is about the private money corruption machine that dominates American politics.
That machine, as Lawrence Lessig details in “Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It,” is composed of private funders, lobbyists and members of Congress, and it runs on addiction.
The private-money corruption machine controls legislative behavior by reinforcing the compulsion to acquire campaign contributions.
Members of Congress spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time campaign fundraising. Unavoidably, they get hooked on loyalty to funders rather than the public they are elected to serve.
But let us be clear: members of Congress do not engage in quid pro quo bribery. Rather, cash arrives indirectly as gifts of thanks for their support of policies that private money wants to advance. As long as members of Congress support private interests, the indirect reinforcement continues and the givers keep giving. In the language of substance abuse, these members of Congress cannot recover until they stop taking private money.
Addiction and recovery metaphors are helpful for framing the private money crisis facing American democracy. The funders and the lobbyists are the dealers. Private money is the drug of choice. Members of Congress are the addicted consumers. Cynical and apathetic voters and the Citizens United Supreme Court justices are the codependents who enable the corruption machine to continue functioning. There can be no sobriety unless there is complete abstinence. This dynamic is what makes Congressional reform so daunting and cynicism such a facile response.
So, how do we stop the corruption machine? How do we achieve sobriety from private money? How will we demonstrate to the addicted and the codependents that “We the People” are the higher power?
Lessig and others say that a new amendment, analogous to the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor in the United States, is required. The new prohibition amendment would provide for public financing of elections and ban or narrowly restrict private funding.
Under Article V of the Constitution, Congress can propose amendments with a two-thirds vote of both houses. But is there a chance that Congress will propose a new prohibition amendment? Not when Congress is the problem. Not when the corrupt representative-lobbyist-private funder relationship is invested in maintaining the status quo.
Another option under Article V is for the states to “call a Convention for proposing Amendments.” States can call for a convention for different reasons. While some may want amendments that say personhood begins at conception and that the federal budget must be balanced, others may want the Electoral College abolished and senators to be popularly elected. What is troubling and uncertain is whether a new prohibition amendment will emerge from the convention mix. Though a new prohibition amendment might stop the machine, it might take a decade or more.
This year, Americans are facing the threat of private-money manipulation in the 2012 election cycle. A recently published New York Times chart shows the constellation of election influence machines run by the now familiar cast of bosses – the Kochs, Karl Rove, Dick Armey and others. These bosses and their machines are extensions of the private-money corruption machine. They are out to swing local, state, and national elections and defeat President Obama and all candidates committed to the public interest.
Can we afford to be cynical? Do we give up on electoral politics and accept that our democracy is a corrupt, private-money machine? Or do we stop being codependent? Do we intervene and take steps to stop the new bosses in 2012? Do we confront the elephant in the room and show the addicts, the dealers and the codependents that we, the people, are the higher power of the Constitution?
We have all the tools. We can register voters and counter voter suppression laws. We can cultivate and support local and state candidates committed to the public interest. We can contribute. We can seek out every eligible voter who believes in the public interest and persuade them to vote. We can vote and participate in get-out-the-vote drives in our own communities.
We also have a new tool that draws on the viral power of the Internet and social networks. From the Occupy Wall Street movement, we know Americans get angry when they recognize that they are being conned, mislead or manipulated. On that assumption, using social media and the Internet, we can strike back and counterblitz the onslaught of hit pieces and opinion manipulation put out by the private-money bosses.
Every time a hit piece attacks a candidate committed to public-interest policies, we strike back with the truth and the facts. We explain the manipulation to our friends and acquaintances. When we see an ad promoting an evidence-free ideological candidate, we expose it as the machine talking. When we see candidates thriving without a campaign organization, we check for their boss connections. By striking back in these and similar ways, we will help to knock out the candidates the new bosses purchased with private money.
So power up, cynics. We are America’s higher power. We need your help to change our dysfunctional republic and restore the American social contract.