Saturday, August 17, 2013

Corporate influence of politics and the disengagement of the general public

There is a strain of thought through American politics that corporate influence in government has grown so far beyond the term "influence" that you might as well say their candidates have been bought and paid for.  Corporate money flows through the vanes of election coffers, and has become the lifeblood of a candidates reelection prospects.  And if elections are the blunt instruments of change, campaign contributions from lobbyists are the the scalpel, laser focused on individual issues, or even individual phrases in bills related to issues.  So does democracy even offer tools for the greater public to weigh in on a policy level?

On the one hand, the reality is there needs to be a place for so called "special interests" to be heard.  We have chosen a representative democracy specifically because the electorate doesn't have the time to become an expert on legislative matters.  But some people are, and they can help guide representatives towards the expertise they need to make a qualified decision.  Take for instance, the computing industry has a strong interest in the concept of net neutrality, a term that most Americans couldn't even explain.  Software engineers and internet companies must take the lead in clarifying policy repercussions for any semblance of a coherent strategy.

On the other hand, there aren't very many avenues for mainstream people to engage with their representatives on issues which they have come to informed opinions.  Corporate money guarantees face time with lawmakers, and even a hand in drafting legislation.  Most public campaign donations are contributed to political parties or individual candidates, which tend to focus again on the blunt instrument instead of the scalpel.  Not surprisingly, the public has become disengaged with the issues, allowing elections to be driven by personalities instead of policy.

There are some common sense reforms to our democracy that could help restore the balance in a non-partisan manner, and engage the greater body politic in issues again.  First of all, we can recognize that corporations benefit tremendously from the economies of scale when it comes to donations.  TV advertising has a built in fixed cost barrier that must be overcome before political money becomes effective.  On a per voter basis, this becomes feasible only when the size of the electorate for an election reaches a critical mass.  The President's campaigns are more cost efficient than a Senator's, and in turn a Senator's is more cost efficient than a member of the house of representatives.  Can you even remember the last time you saw a TV add for a city council member?  Consider when the country was founded, we had one member of the house of representatives for every 30,000 people... a ratio very similar to that city council member.  Today, we are approaching 1,000,000 people for each representative.  If we were to restore that ratio, the pool of corporate money would be diluted on a per representative basis to levels not seen in a generation, and we would see a waning of corporate influence... at least in the house of representatives.  Another benefit of this system is that people can have a lot closer contact with their representatives when they have to represent such a smaller group.  It could serve to empower people to seek out their representatives on a personal level.

Another possible way to provide democratic institutions with the mechanisms to support issue level representation is to change the way we vote.  Consider that the house of representatives is formed of a number of committees that are much more issue focused.  These committees are designed to allow representatives to become experts on individual issues, and are a driver of legislation before it reaches the wider house of representatives for a vote.  But these committees are appointed by the leadership of the parties, largely on a seniority basis.  In a two party system like are own, it virtually guarantees that Americans who care about issues have no say at the ballot box, unless all their issues align with one of the two party choices.  If instead we had many parties, where people could vote nationally for the parties that best matched their personal ideologies, we could have a better reflection of the American will on individual issues in these committees.  Better yet, we could even potentially have issue specific parties, which the public votes separately for on a per committee basis.  I could vote for my charter schools party for the Education and Workforce committee, and my deficit reduction party for the Budget committee, and my isolationist party for the Armed Services committee, and so on.  Imagine the engagement Americans could have in such a system!

In conclusion, corporate influence in American politics is not a problem to be addressed in and of itself, but a symptom of a greater problem of public disengagement in the issues of politics.  Common sense reforms which empower individuals to engage with their representative democracy would naturally dilute the influence of special interests, yet preserve their rights to engage in the political process with their expertise.  Changing the levers of elections to allow voting for committee members would turn politics on its head, and help bring the body politic back in line with the values of the people they represent.

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