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This Side of Democracy

Posted on Aug 30, 2010
Wikimedia Commons/April Sikorski

New Yorkers line up to cast their ballots in Brooklyn in November 2008.

By Stuart Whatley

(Page 2)

Moreover, campaign finance regulations are not cut-and-dry protective measures that always benefit the little guy, such as consumer protection rules or FDA standards. They can often work against those they are meant to serve. The greater the complexity in campaign finance statutes, the harder it is for Average Joe to navigate the system. The unintended consequence is empowerment of the moneyed few that can still afford the big-time D.C. pettifogger who knows the ropes.

The current, renewed stalemate—especially in the aftermath of Citizens United where legislative efforts to brunt that decision’s blow have fallen far short—is quite familiar. The Roberts Court is making it abundantly clear that free speech trumps all else in its rulings. According to Richard Briffault, Columbia Law School’s Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation and a noted authority on the Court’s history of campaign finance rulings, the Court has, “abandoned [the] view that in campaign finance cases the Court should reconcile and balance free speech values with other concerns like political integrity, the promotion of democracy, and respect for Congress’s efforts to balance these goals. Instead, Roberts’s opinion framed the case entirely from a First Amendment perspective. It was not about the rules governing the corporate role in financing elections but simply ‘about political speech.’”

Thus, for the time being, there is a pragmatic argument for abandoning attempts to reinstate restrictive measures on political speech, regardless of whether one speaks from his mouth or from his wallet. In the absence of a Constitutional amendment, the effort to stymie the flow of certain monies into elections and politics is simply futile. But neither can the status quo stand. The Constitutional liberties of the many should not suffer a de facto depression in value because of political access granted to the wealthy few. 

One answer, growing in popularity, is to approach the problem from the opposite end. A semblance of balance can be realized by activating small donors; or, as the Campaign Finance Institute’s Michael Malbin, a leading voice for small donor encouragement, says, “what is needed probably has less to do with squeezing down the top than building up the bottom.” According to his organization, if a mere 10 percent of voters give $75 to a campaign, it would total to $1.65 billion, almost 40 percent of the total expense for all federal elections (using 2004 figures).

There are a number of simple tricks to achieve this, some of which are already being experimented with by a few States—such as Ohio, Arizona, and Minnesota—but which deserve far more attention at the federal level and on state ballot initiatives. 

One is multiplicative matching that applies only to small donations. If you give $100, the state will throw in $500; but if you’re giving in the thousands, towards the legal limits, you enjoy no such enhancement. The value of small donors’ speech is amplified exponentially, and at little real cost. Another option is a tax voucher that rewards political participation for lower- and middle- income donors. If you meet certain tax bracket parameters, then you will qualify for tax rebates matching or exceeding political contributions. Again, this simple measure would amplify and encourage small donor participation, with very little public expense and without violating anyone else’s purported First Amendment rights.

Traditional barriers for campaigns should be weakened and broken so that seeding a political campaign does not require gobs of money. Through specifically purposed subsidies to television networks, campaigns could be exempt from the exorbitant cost of running primetime ads. Access to broadband should be viewed as a right for all, rather than a privilege. With broadband access, lower- and middle-class voters and donors can be reached for next to nothing, and grassroots movements centered on pertinent causes can emerge from thin air through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social networking. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. has dropped from the first-ranking broadband country a decade ago to the 16th today, according to rankings from the International Telecommunications Union. And it’s not just a lack of access (or ‘penetration’ to use the industry lingo)—broadband in the States is also far more expensive on a per capita basis than in places like Canada, Denmark or Taiwan because there is not adequate competition. While trust-busting the telecom oligarchy would be exceedingly difficult, engineering ways to enhance information for consumers for more informed choices is not. The Federal Election Commission has a wealth of information that need only be distilled into a reader-friendly format on a public site for all to access. And in addition to this simple measure, voters should push members of both parties in Congress to support the Obama administration’s National Broadband plan.

Beyond the problem of special interest money in elections is civic engagement more generally. For a country that prides itself as the world’s primus inter pares democracy, a 50 percent average voting rate is alarmingly low. Most don’t think his or her vote will change anything. So why not create an economic incentive through a tax refund for voting? Unlike the controversial Poll Tax of the 19th Century, used to disenfranchise black voters, this would take the opposite approach by creating an incentive rather than a disincentive. The crucial difference between incentivizing civic engagement and restricting it is that the latter is unconstitutional while the former just makes sense.

The salient solution to the overall problem is to address the messaging away from arguably unconstitutional, restrictive approaches to measures that encourage and incentivize everyone, regardless of socio-economic factors. Faith in government and the value of exercising one’s liberties must be restored. People should enjoy dividends for caring enough to participate. But to do so legislators and the administration must do all they can to convince the people that one’s vote actually matters and that one’s liberties have practical worth, irrespective of the size of one’s wallet. Saying you’ll take down the fat cats always sounds better than saying you’ll enhance access for the lower- and middle class, but the former never really works. It’s rhetorical gold that translates into policy lead.

A retreat from burdensome regulations coupled with efforts to enhance wider civic involvement should appeal to opponents of big government and opponents of big business alike.  At this juncture, it is the ideal—and indeed, the only feasible—approach. If such efforts fail at the federal level then they should at least be implemented in the states through local pressure on state and municipal governments or through ballot initiatives. Redefining the standard locally, in enough places, could then trickle up to national acceptance, similar to the trend seen in same-sex marriage. In his new book, Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb tells the story of Alison Smith, an average citizen from Maine who fought for and won the passage of that state’s Clean Elections system. People just like Alison are everywhere; they just need to see that there is a way forward.

The ideas presented above are but a few. But if our current leaders can change the message towards encouragement instead of discouragement, then the possibilities for even more practical fixes are limitless. Or in the straightforward words of the late Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock, another average citizen like Alison Smith who became a national icon when she marched across the country at the ripe age of 90 to challenge the role of money in elections: “If we are to retain our democracy, we must proceed in a new direction.”


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By Anarcissie, September 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm Link to this comment

gerard—My phraseology could have been ‘If there is a lot of power in one place….’  However, yes, someone does create political power: people who like or believe in having powerful leaders or powerful states.  Under present conditions, that seems to be the majority, although maybe as you suggest the majority just don’t care and it’s an active, probably sociopathic minority that see to the accumulation and arrangement of political power.

I don’t see much active belief in actual markets, even at the cat food level.  (Cat food manufacturers multiply brands and pay off supermarket managers to take up shelf space, that is, deny other brands access to customers.)  Talk about free markets on the part of most capitalists is about the same as talk about peace, justice, equality and freedom on the part of politicians.

I am hoping our present condition of superstition, irrationality, passivity and sycophancy is an after-effect of several thousand years of servitude—‘the shadow of slavery’ as I sometimes call it—from which we may be emerging.  I am pessimistic but at least once a week I do my little political thing to try to move things the other way.

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By Gmonst, September 1, 2010 at 2:40 pm Link to this comment

All the great achievements human beings have accomplished, and all the horrors they have accomplished as well have only been possible by the collective effort of people.  Not solitary efforts.  Individualism is good to a point, I believe strongly in personal freedom.  However, there seems to be a track of thinking in this country that sees working together as some kind of weakness.  As if we should all be able to go out in the woods and build our own advanced civilization.  As if every human accomplishment didn’t come about from the collective effort of many individuals working together.

Imagine what could be possible if we could recognize the essential needs of humanity on this planet and work together to achieve it.  We now have the technology to house, feed, and clothe every living person on the planet.  Not this country alone but all countries working together.  Its only our collective choice to not do it that stops us.  I believe in a slow and ongoing cultural shift that begins to see the human in the “other”  tribe, nation, religion, etc.  So we can put our taxes toward helping others without feeling like we are getting ripped off. 

The strangest thing is this whole time, corporate power is the benefactor of our tax dollars in a wide variety of ways.  We argue amongst ourselves about if its a rip-off to help each other while the wealthiest amongst us take more of everyone’s treasure than any poor person ever will.

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By gerard, September 1, 2010 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment

Anarchissie:  You say:  ” If you put a lot of power in one place, especially coercive power,...” Is it your thought that we, somebody, some non-human agent “put a lot of power in one place.” Or ...?
My analysis relies on the pervasiveness of political inertia and on the fact that individualism as a political “philosophy” discourages organized
political action.
  I know we are talking about abstractions here
but your phrase “if you put ...” begs for my question. There seems to me to be an important difference between (passive) allowing a lot of power to accrue to one place and (active) putting power
in one place.  Of course the results are largely the same, but the solution to accruing problems seems to demand a different answer.
  My contention is that our problems have been allowed to accrue because we have (over a long period of time, and due largely to individualism) allowed power to accrue in the hands of “the market”
as our “sacred bull”.  Not that I’m promoting religion here, but yes, certainly those vague “higher things” that come under the vague but important concept of “spirituality”, “morality”, etc.
  Or, in other words, how much of this is conscious and how much unintentioinal? It is easy to see now the conscious manipulations by centers of power. But I am also interested in knowing what there is to know about how we got here—not incident by incident, but cause by cause.  Am I nuts?

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By rico, suave, August 31, 2010 at 3:16 pm Link to this comment

The urge to look out for each other is directly correlated to the proximity of personal relationship. This is not a new concept.

In order: I look out for myself, for my immediate family, for my extended family, for my clan, my tribe, my nation, the human race. Pick your meaning for clan and tribe, and (for you ‘we-are-the-world’ types) nation. You know what I mean.

Coercive government aid programs have inverted the heirarchy and people are rebelling. If I am less able to take care of my family because government has decided FOR ME that some distant tribe is more important and taxes me to help them, it’s going to piss me off. No one can honestly disagree with that.

Everybody has somebody, somewhere.

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By Anarcissie, August 31, 2010 at 10:55 am Link to this comment

As I just mentioned, the government is coercive.  If you put a lot of power in one place, especially coercive power, you can expect those who are strongly attracted to power—sociopaths, generally—to try to get into that place.  Some will succeed, as we observe in our own government.  One often calls this ‘corruption’, but actually it is simply the logical consequence of the idea of the state.

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By gerard, August 31, 2010 at 10:33 am Link to this comment

Gmonst:  We thought, we hoped, we believed, we even trusted that government is the people’s collective—but now we know that it isn’t.
  Of course it can work that way—but apparently it isn’t going to work that way without a lot more help from its overly humble constituents.
It’s elites have bought it, had it gift-wrapped and sent to a handful of monkeys in suits, playing casino on a $350 million dollar yacht named “Secure Horizons” moored out in the middle of the Atlantic, watching the glaciers melt.

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By Gmonst, August 31, 2010 at 9:45 am Link to this comment

If people desire collectivities there is nothing to stop them from voluntarily forming them.

I thought that is what government is supposed to be the collective of the people.  Doing work for the people. Just because its not working that way doesn’t mean it can’t work that way.

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By gerard, August 31, 2010 at 9:07 am Link to this comment

Note:  Again, haste makes waste.  My just previous comment should have been addressed to “Stuart Whatley”, not “Bill”.  I regret the error in attribution.

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By gerard, August 31, 2010 at 7:47 am Link to this comment

Bill, I’m afraid Granny D would laugh (behind her handerkerchief, perhaps) at much of your article.
Your vocabulary gives you away in most of it:
  “simple tricks”  “a semblance of”  “specifically purposed subsidies” “distill information into..”
“simple measures”  “reader-friendly format”  “enhance wider civic involvement:  and above all, the airy-fairy “legislators and administration should do all they can to convince the people that one’s vote actually matters”

  Where have you been all this time?  It’s the “legislators and administration” that have done all they can for decades to create the situation where people’s votes DO NOT actually matter. They are the one’s who decided that money is what matters.

  How I wish it were a “simple matter”!  Truth is (and Granny D would know it) the people themselves are going to have to work for necessary changes in every way they can. Time and energy and thought and cooperation and all kinds of non-violent processes are going to be required.  Are we up to it?  We’ll soon find out.

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By Anarcissie, August 31, 2010 at 5:50 am Link to this comment

Gmonst—Don’t forget that government is coercive.  This fact deeply affects what it does and how it does it.  If people desire collectivities there is nothing to stop them from voluntarily forming them.  If force is necessary something is amiss.

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By Shift, August 31, 2010 at 5:23 am Link to this comment

Soft, divided, and confused Americans lack the current capacity to define and act in their best interests.  The sweaty happy hoards feed their children to the wars that benefit the plutocracy; rail against unions that support their economic well being, vote for people who openly support criminal banksters; love their dogs and kick their spouses.  Freedom has rung itself out.  Liberty is propaganda.

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By Gmonst, August 31, 2010 at 12:30 am Link to this comment

No I can’t exist completely alone.  Maybe I could survive for a while, but it wouldn’t really be much more than that.  We who live the modern world are hopelessly intertwined with each other from the richest person to the poorest none of us can exist completely apart from one another. 

I am not talking about welfare or being a welfare slave, I personally am self employed and have never taken a dime of handouts from the government.  However, my upbringing, stable home, loving parents, and education have given me many advantages that others may not have gotten. I believe in having a government that works for all of us not just a few who have a lot of money, or those who had the many advantages of a stable upbringing. 

You mention falling back on your family if things get really bad, there is a comfort in knowing you have people that care and have your back.  I am suggesting a change in perspective that sees all the fellows of our country as part of our family, and then sees the fellow humans sharing the ride on this planet as our family.  When we can put our resources (already collected as taxes) into priorities of providing health and prosperity for everyone, I firmly believe it will be a better world for us all.  Yes, some will exploit a system that provides guarantees of food housing, and health care.  Some will not strive to be better or rise up, but they won’t be on the edge feeling desperate, doing things like crime that desperate people do when they exist on the edge of a society that doesn’t give a shit about them.  This stability alone will probably mean a lot more children will be raised in an atmosphere of relative stability and have a better chance to do and be better, gain a good education and become good contributing members of society as adults.  It seems to me that the benefits of such approach would far outweigh having some take advantage of the system.

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By rico, suave, August 30, 2010 at 6:04 pm Link to this comment


Don’t know. I have my family to fall back on if it comes to that. Know how to grow food, fix things. Don’t need to be a government welfare slave. How about you?

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By Anarcissie, August 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm Link to this comment

What closet?

As for the voting placards, I don’t think they have enough languages.  Same old same old English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean.  What have they got against the Uzbeks?

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By Gmonst, August 30, 2010 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment

Rico, can you exist completely alone?

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By rico, suave, August 30, 2010 at 3:58 pm Link to this comment


Fair enough. I’m just glad you came out of the closet. Don’t “walk back,” as the new, cool locution has it, from your stance. I, too, could give a shit about the mosque, and hate the war. But, it pisses me off that my tax dollars go toward printing those signs, even if it’s just showing off.

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By Anarcissie, August 30, 2010 at 3:47 pm Link to this comment

rico, suave—I did give a standard hard-core libertarian analysis there, but it has been my impression that the Tea Parties have pretty much gotten rid of the libertarians.  Palin talks of ‘strong defense’ (that is, war and empire) and no true libertarian likes war and empire.  By and large, Tea Partiers seem to not mind big corporations, whereas hardcore libertarians are often anticorporate to the point of saying corporations shouldn’t exist.  A lot of Tea Partiers degraded themselves by joining the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ circus, whereas a consistent libertarian would vehemently defend the rights of everyone to use of their property and freedom of speech and religion.  I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea.  However, I’m not really an authority on the Tea Parties, I just see what crops up in the news.

I do like to give progs some libertarianism to chew on now and then; it’s good for their teeth and contains vitamins.  I was hoping someone would chew on my latest, but no luck so far.

In regard to your question about the multilingual election sign, I think it’s just walking the dog.  Practically anyone who wants to vote can read enough English to find the polling places and mark a ballot.  However, here in New York City we’re proud of our polyglot population and culture and official signs and publications often come in a dizzying variety of languages, just to show off.

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By rico, suave, August 30, 2010 at 3:02 pm Link to this comment


“If we can remain focused on the collective…”


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By ofersince72, August 30, 2010 at 3:00 pm Link to this comment


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By rico, suave, August 30, 2010 at 2:59 pm Link to this comment


“Obviously, if one has a large, powerful, centralized, pervasive government it will attract corruption, because it will afford many opportunities for power and profit; the corrupters will then strive to make it yet more large, powerful, centralized, pervasive and corrupt.”

Good on ya! Welcome to the Tea Party! You could NOT have described the central premise of the Tea Party movement any more precisely! You are my hero!

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By rico, suave, August 30, 2010 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment

I like the sign in front of the voting station (NOT!). Why is it necessary to post the instructions in four different languages? I thought a rudimentary understanding of English was a condition of citizenship, which is a condition of the right to vote. How fluent in English do you have to be to understand “Vote Here”? What are we, Canada?

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By Gmonst, August 30, 2010 at 2:35 pm Link to this comment

This is certainly one of the most important and biggest challenges facing democracy in the United States.  The system as it stands is corrupt to the core.

I think the basic point of this article is that he power and the money is there to turn the tide, if we work together.  In reality we DO have more power than wealthy elite if we become one collective force.  I think that its true, but the difficulty lies in getting people to work together for the interest of the community in general.  There is so much bifurcation, misinformation, fear-mongering and distortion coming from the media that its impossible to get the American people to really work together.  Its very easy to spread bullshit, but its very hard, tiring work to counter-act a never ending stream of bullshit. 

All of us humans have needs that are remarkably similar.  The only thing stopping us from doing better is the fear of the “other,” and a selfishness in wanting to have more than others around us.  We all fall prey to this mentality, its probably a natural tendency from the ape-troop hierarchy of our collective past.

As I see it the only way this can change is through a shift in our cultural system.  As individuals we can facilitate this change by always trying to see the humanity of the “others.” 

Terrorists, dictators, neo-conservatives, corporatists,  progressives, democrats, republicans, extremist-Christians, extremist Jews, extremist Muslims, communists, Palestinians, etc.  They are all humans with the same needs and wants as you or me.  If we can recognize those basic needs and desires as driving all human behavior we can truly see humanity as our own family, our sisters and brothers to be protected and taken care of, for they are all much more like me than unlike me.  Once this vision is in place within ourselves (internal change is the catalyst for external change) it will become contagious without requiring a brow beating effort on our part.  Don’t retreat or reload, put down your guns and offer a hug.  Its not naive, its bravery in its highest form.

If we can remain focused on the collective need of us all and remain fearless in the face of misinformation, propaganda, lies, and distortion the world will change for the better.

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By Anarcissie, August 30, 2010 at 12:49 pm Link to this comment

Obviously, if one has a large, powerful, centralized, pervasive government it will attract corruption, because it will afford many opportunities for power and profit; the corrupters will then strive to make it yet more large, powerful, centralized, pervasive and corrupt.

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By gerard, August 30, 2010 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Whatley:  On your point: ” Faith in government and the value of exercising one’s liberties must be restored. .... legislators and the administration must do all they can to convince the people that one’s vote actually matters ...”
  How is this to be done if voters’ opinions are relegated to inconsequentiality when they are up against the money and opinions of corporations?
Especially since the despicable Supreme Court chose to give legal sanction to the repression of the public’s voice!
  How nine people could throw an entire democracy to the winds and keep their heads up is beyond me. This was, and is, a devastating blow to an elective democracy (which has at the same time a number of other overwhelming problems needing broad input from ordinary people).
  The one thing that would do more than anything else, and at one stroke, would be to GIVE BACK the public voice (means free media time and space—in the public interest). Nothing but evil intent denies the people this access in the first place and reduces them to ineffectual pleading or to defeatism as a result of being excluded from meaningful participation in their own government.
  This needs to be recognized as the shocking travesty it is—and changed immediately!  SCOTUS, are you listening?  Of course not.  That’s the problem!

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