America is a representative democracy. From the days of its founding it was too expansive a country to be a democracy; you simply couldn’t get everyone (in those days white men only) together to debate and vote on every issue. Today the country is much larger and has a much, much greater population (plus we, at least theoretically, allow all adults to vote) therefore getting all of us together to vote on every issue is impossible. Our Founders came up with the idea of each area electing three representatives (one in the House, two in the Senate via the State Legislature) to represent its interests and citizens in the nation’s capital. How is that working out today (even with the gender exclusion gone and the direct election of Senators)? Let’s explore.
For the purpose of today’s article I’ll take partisanship out of the discussion. That also means gerrymandering and voter suppression. With partisanship removed I can discuss the biggest problem in American politics and that is the influence of money.
It is outrageously expensive to run for public office even at the state level. A few years ago when I was a County Chair I remember one of the first questions I asked a prospective candidate for a State Senate seat (that still pays less than $15,000 a year and has a two year term) was, “Can you raise a million dollars?”. This raises two major concerns.
The first is the obvious disparity between compensation and cost. In that situation (which is the one we are in today) obviously money had way too large of an influence. I’m not talking bribery; I’m simply saying it is very difficult to vote against the interests of a major donor. Also, this system forces the office holder to spend way too much time raising money which means less spent on constituent service and legislation.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the other issue on my mind is even worse. If I go back to my management education the term I would use is barrier to entry. In simple terms how many candidates that would make great public servants never run because they know they can’t self-fund and are intimidated by the amount of money they would have to raise to fund a viable campaign? That defeats the entire idea of representative democracy. The person representing me is supposed to be like and think like me to a great degree.
That brings up the wealthy candidate who can self-fund. While that take the issue of bribery (which thankfully is very small) and being beholden out of the equation. Is that representative government? How can a wealthy person who was born into wealth understand living paycheck to paycheck (like most Americans do) much less poverty? There are a few mainly self-made people of substantial wealth but not too many.
Thankfully sans outside interference (which does occasionally occur – usually from an industry) running for local office is still affordable to most. A relatively new development at that level is some very creative funding like go fund me efforts. That means someone who lives in a less economically affluent area can run to represent people like them instead of someone from an entirely different social-economic background basically helicoptering in to “represent” them. Do we now have a system where the poor or working class can only “play on the low farm club “of public office?
I don’t have a complete solution to the problem. We have learned that public funding with an “opt out” provision doesn’t work. I’d like to see a time limit on campaigns but how do we institute that and not trample on people’s First Amendment rights? Shortening campaigns would lower their cost. What are the free speech implications of doing that and how do we police it?
The first step may well be to not consider corporations as people ala Citizens United. Corporate money has effectively been campaign inflation plus Citizens United has opened the doors to foreign money entering our elections rather easily. Instead of having to launder it through several straw donors you can simply give it to one corporation (for profit or non-profit) and have them donate it.
As to individual donations, amount limits do not abridge freedom of speech. They simply level the playing field to a degree and respect the “speech” of the masses. If a wealthy person can give say $5,000 they still have a large, but somewhat reasonable, advantage over most people’s $20 to $100.
I’m not going to solve such a complex issue in a matter of a few hundred words. If it wasn’t already there I needed to bring it to everyone’s attention. Realization is the first step in problem solving. If we are to have a representative government the elected officials can’t be beholden to a few deep pocketed donors regardless of where they are on the political ideological spectrum.
This article was written well ahead of publishing in order to accommodate my year end hiatus and is the property of tellthetruthonthem.com. Its content may not be used without citing the source. It may not be reproduced without the permission of Larry Marciniak.