FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

It’s the Whole System

by JOAN ROELOFS

The problem at the heart of the Citizens United decision cannot be easily fixed. One difficulty is the absence in the Constitution of provisions for how someone is to become a candidate for elected office, and what means are to be used to garner votes. A new democracy was created, but there was no way designed for ordinary people to get into the act.

The usual way around 1789 was the “old boy network.” In addition to the exclusion of women, blacks, native Americans, slaves, indentured servants, atheists, and other categories, the political arena was limited to those with the connections, resources, and time to participate.

There is nothing in the Constitution about political parties. With their development, there was more opportunity for white male Protestant non-entities to enter politics and have organizational and financial support for election campaigns. Even today, some low-key elected officials (such as the New Hampshire House of Representatives) can depend on party funds for electioneering.

However, it was always useful in becoming a candidate with serious chances of winning to have some other organizational base. Veterans’ organizations, fraternal associations, and League of Women Voters were more democratic than some of the others. Yet even the self-selection and confidence needed makes the field unrepresentative of the general population. Furthermore, success was always largely based on the arts of persuasion. Today this is an exalted science, with expertise profuse for those who can pay. A similar situation existed in classical Athens, so that those advocating democracy did not rely on elections.

Now elections for major offices are almost entirely contested by sponsored candidates. Our political parties are like alliances of feudal barons, each supported by vassals, which may be corporations, interest groups, wealthy patrons, local businesses, or even foreign governments. Those providing support in turn demand and receive protection, often from the ravaging (albeit “invisible”) hands of the free market. Each party’s barons have an interest in their mutual re-election, and thus their major legislative motivation is to sustain everyone’s patronage relations. Party platforms and promises are of minor significance in policy outcomes. Congressional offices and entourages are enlarged versions of the traditional political machine, still flourishing despite the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century.

Corporations of all kinds dominate the political process. Restrictions on for-profit corporations would logically apply also to non-profit ones. Many of the latter are fronts for business, and foundation grants are also derived from past and present corporate profits. Yet, political associations of all types, including those sincerely trying to change the world, are usually corporations. The press today is almost always a corporation, not a “person,” and restricting its political voice is not acceptable even to conservatives.

First amendment freedoms are not dependent on “personhood.” The 14th Amendment applies only to state action and prohibits depriving “persons” of life, liberty or property without due process of law; the 5th Amendment is an equivalent prohibition on the federal government. In contrast, the 1st Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law .  .  . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In fact many exceptions have been made by law and court decisions, but there has always been an assumption that those activities are protected whether conducted by individuals or associations. For example, in a recent decision the Supreme Court declared that the Boy Scout association had expressive rights (Boy Scouts v. Dale, 2000).

The requirement for Political Action Committees before a corporation, union, or interest group can make a direct contribution to a candidate has hardly stemmed the flow of corporate “speech” in elections. For one thing, dollar limits on bribe amounts do not prevent corporations from having several PACs. For another, direct corporate disbursements are forbidden, yet it is a common practice for executives to be ordered to give, and then receive that figure in a “bonus.”

How then to limit the power of wealth to distort the electoral system? Cynics might say there is no distortion; that is the system. Yet, some mitigations could be tried.

One would be to figure out a way to encourage people representing all groups in our society to become candidates and support them in the very early, pre-primary stages, including subsistence pay if necessary. There could be some test to make sure a person is serious and not simply running for a meal ticket; a revival of political parties including “minor” ones would help in this regard. Currently, the long haul before an election is most easily afforded by the independently wealthy or those who can turn their business over to their partners. Employees who take time off to campaign often lose their jobs, whether elected or not. Usually there is not a single person with a working class background serving in the U.S. Congress.

The campaigns themselves would be publicly funded, including TV time or whatever is necessary to inform voters of the public policy or other relevant positions of the contestants. Image creation, and environmentally-destructive advertising would be minimized. Those elected would need to be constantly monitored by citizens to make sure that they stuck to the script, or had good reasons for departing from it.

Alternatively, elections could be eliminated and representatives chosen by lot, as in the classical Athenian semi-democracy. Selection could start with the voter lists, and an appropriate number selected at random for city and town councils (with enough extra to allow for refusals). All those who served for say, two years on local councils would be eligible for the draw for state legislature, and those with several years of experience at the state level would be in the lottery for national Congress, which might choose and control a President from among them. Such a system would not produce more “uninformed” legislators than the current one, in which policy matters are generally left to staff while the representative concentrates on collecting funds for re-election. Local service is in any case a good education for politicians and their families, as was the case in Athens.

In either case, vast corporate wealth is still likely to dominate policy-making. It would nevertheless be useful as a demonstration of the difficulties in reconciling democracy and capitalism.

JOAN ROELOFS is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Apex-Bootstrap Press, 1996).Contact: joan.roelofs@myfairpoint.net

More articles by:

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) and translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site: www.joanroelofs.wordpress.com  Contact: joan.roelofs@myfairpoint.net

February 21, 2018
Cecil Bothwell
Billy Graham and the Gospel of Fear
Ajamu Baraka
Venezuela: Revenge of the Mad-Dog Empire
Edward Hunt
Treating North Korea Rough
Binoy Kampmark
Meddling for Empire: the CIA Comes Clean
Ron Jacobs
Stamping Out Hunger
Ammar Kourany – Martha Myers
So, You Think You Are My Partner? International NGOs and National NGOs, Costs of Asymmetrical Relationships
Michael Welton
1980s: From Star Wars to the End of the Cold War
Judith Deutsch
Finkelstein on Gaza: Who or What Has a Right to Exist? 
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
War Preparations on Venezuela as Election Nears
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Military Realities
Steve Early
Refinery Safety Campaign Frays Blue-Green Alliance
Ali Mohsin
Muslims Face Increasing Discrimination, State Surveillance Under Trump
Julian Vigo
UK Mass Digital Surveillance Regime Ruled Illegal
Peter Crowley
Revisiting ‘Make America Great Again’
Andrew Stewart
Black Panther: Afrofuturism Gets a Superb Film, Marvel Grows Up and I Don’t Know How to Review It
CounterPunch News Service
A Call to Celebrate 2018 as the Year of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois by the Saturday Free School
February 20, 2018
Nick Pemberton
The Gun Violence the Media Shows Us and the State Violence They Don’t
John Eskow
Sympathy for the Drivel: On the Vocabulary of President Nitwit
John Steppling
Trump, Putin, and Nikolas Cruz Walk Into a Bar…
John W. Whitehead
America’s Cult of Violence Turns Deadly
Ishmael Reed
Charles F. Harris: He Popularized Black History
Will Podmore
Paying the Price: the TUC and Brexit
George Burchett
Plumpes Denken: Crude thinking
Binoy Kampmark
The Caring Profession: Peacekeeping, Blue Helmets and Sexual Abuse
Lawrence Wittner
The Trump Administration’s War on Workers
David Swanson
The Question of Sanctions: South Africa and Palestine
Walter Clemens
Murderers in High Places
Dean Baker
How Does the Washington Post Know that Trump’s Plan Really “Aims” to Pump $1.5 Trillion Into Infrastructure Projects?
February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail