On Wednesday night Jon Stewart at the Daily Show skewered the Democratic “super majority” for passing no major legislation on the environment, Iraq or Afghan war timetables, or health care. Stewart mocked how the Senate Finance Committee rejected two health care bills with a public option (despite the fact the public option is supported by 65% of the people and 70% of doctors) on the same day they passed an “abstinence only” education proposal. Stewart’s colleague Stephen Colbert was more direct, pointing out how Max Baucus (D-Montana), Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has received over $3 million in campaign contributions from the health care industry.
In all the complaining from me and others about the wild rhetoric from some voices on the right, there is one fact that nothing Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin says can change: the Democrats have 60 Senators, and a majority in the House of Representatives of 79 seats. Even if the Republicans score big gains in 2010, they’re not going to pick up 40 House or ten Senate seats. The Democrats have a secure majority, if united they can defeat any filibuster in the Senate, so how on earth can one blame the Republicans for the lack of progress on major legislative issues?
One can’t. For all the criticism I might have of the nature of current political discourse, the Democrats should be able to pass just about anything from emission trading for climate change to serious health care reform. They should be able to undo tax cuts that they criticized, and cut “corporate welfare” that enriches big business. They talk a good game, but can they follow through?
The same can be said for the Republicans, of course. They came into office promising smaller government, fiscal responsibility, and enhanced personal liberty. Instead, the Bush years with Republican majorities gave us the opposite on all fronts. It’s hard not to conclude that politics in America is a sham, with both parties telling persuasive lies, only to line their own pockets and follow the whims of big money once they are in power. It’s tempting to see the “spettacolo,” or ‘spectacle’ of talk radio, blogs, tea parties and anti-war protests as something to merely appease the masses. Bread and circuses. Keep the public amused so they don’t know what the man behind the curtain is really doing!
Yet that is probably too cynical. There is weak party discipline on both sides of the aisle, and diverse opinions. The Democrats have members who are conservative enough to be in the GOP if they had so chosen, while others would be comfortable in a European Social Democratic party. The Republicans have pro-business “libertarians” who may be pro-choice, support gay rights and consider religion mere myth, standing alongside religious conservatives distrustful of big business and focused on things like abortion and the teaching of evolution. With “big tent” parties it’s hard to reach agreement. The most unified they are is when they oppose the other side.
Still, it’s clear that both parties serve a master beholden to no ideology: big money. They do not all serve that master, nor are they always loyal servants. Big money serves their other interests: being able to get re-elected, and having effective contacts to enhance political power. Big money also has a sense of marketing — they both market themselves to politicians (we provide information and can help you better serve your district) and give politicians the arguments to market their positions to the voters.
How they work can also be subtle. In the power packed inside the beltway universe it is lobbyists for wealthy companies who throw the best parties, have the most ease in making contacts, and create a ‘conventional wisdom’ around an issue. Their power is especially strong in the US, where individuals are elected and party loyalty virtually unnecessary.
Big money plays a huge role in European politics, but in places where party leaders set policy, and the party funds and shapes election campaigns, there is more of a firewall against undue influence. Individuals are beholden to their party, not their donors, and party leaders see themselves as representing real political interests, willing to take on big money more often. Places with limits on campaign activity and campaign spending can more effectively shut out the power of big money.
Why is it that in the EU, also wealthy and industrialized, there is 90% support for concrete action to stop global warrming, strong support for public health care, and real questions about the usefulness of military power in today’s world? Simply: in the EU big corporations can’t control the climate change debate, there isn’t a huge health care industry working to undercut public health care support, and the arms industry isn’t in bed with the parliaments and the military to keep production levels high. This also means that in the EU campaigns like the “Big Ask” campaign in the UK to push for climate change laws can be effective — they aren’t running up against a propaganda behemoth funded by extremely wealthy and powerful organizations.
So what can be done? Campaign finance reform was a nice idea, but ultimately we can’t alter campaigns without changing the constitution, and for all the problems inherent in the money-politics nexus, I do not want to weaken the first amendment. While some different kind of political system inspiring party loyalty might sound good in theory, you don’ t mess with established political traditions like the US electoral system without risking dangerous unforeseen consequences.
The only solution is information. The public has to know what is happening, see where the money is going, and not get distracted by talk radio, wild pundits from the left or right that go for emotion rather than reason. That may sound naively optimistic, but I think that’s happening. I think the generation of college students now is active in ways that make them potentially more powerful than any generation in the past. It’s no longer big protests, but making connections via the internet and working on practical campaigns from amnesty international to “350.org.”
I’m optimistic that this can work in part because the current generation of college students is the first to have grown up entirely during the internet age. They are more connected and knowledgeable about how to dig for information than earlier generations, and tend to assume that they can find just about anything out if they really try. This will make it harder for politicians and big money to rig the game and keep us distracted.
This won’t happen overnight. Obama’s election was the first shot fired by a generation wanting to change politics. But an information revolution like that caused by the internet cannot help but fundamentally change and democratize knowledge and information. The rules of the game are changing, and given the current gridlock and the inability of both parties to stay true to their word, that’s a good thing.