12 July 2010

The Corporate Populism of George Will

Freedom of speech is once more in peril, George Will warned us over the weekend. Any measure that compromises the ability of corporations or their owners to flood the airwaves with political advertising is a victory for that enemy of the people, the "political class." One such scheme that was thankfully struck down by the Supreme Court was an Arizona measure that aimed at leveling the playing field by subsidizing candidates who opt to rely exclusively on public funding. I'm not that great a fan of public funding, because I'm not a fan of funded campaigns, but Will, with the Court behind him, thinks that leveling the playing field is unfair to those with the advantage of wealth.

From his perspective, however, it is wealth's power to spend that actually levels the political playing field. As others have noted, incumbents appear to have a great advantage over challengers in most elections. There are many potential explanations for this admittedly lamentable fact, from the complacency of voters to the Bipolarization of every level of politics, but Will knows of one possible remedy: money. While he's as quick as anyone to refute the charge that campaign spending automatically buys elections by brainwashing voters with a flood of ads -- and history will bear him out, to an extent, -- Will clearly believes that money can crack the wall of complacency that surrounds incumbents. Why else would he argue that any regulation of campaign donations favors incumbents? Why should that be so? Won't the wealthy want to fund the incumbent in many cases? The answer would seem obvious to some of us, but Will expects wealth to play the insurgent role in elections. That tells us about the kind of elections he envisions, and his desire that they be as well funded as possible.

Will is a practitioner of what we can call corporate populism. While the original Populists pitted the people they claimed to represent against the power of wealth, or at least against certain factions of the wealthy, Will proposes a populism in which corporations, or at least entrepreneurs, are the authentic American people, the true productive class threatened by an exploitative, parasitic clique. That clique is the "political class," the career politicians, the mandarinate of bureaucrats and regulators -- those people actually chosen by the people to lead them, or appointed by those elected by the people. They are the enemies of the real American people in Will's America.

"Beware when the political class preens about protecting us from 'special interests,' Will writes, "The most powerful, persistent and anti-constitutional interest is the political class." As a rule, I don't like calling anyone in America a "special interest," but if I have to choose to use that label on entrepreneurs hostile to regulation and taxation, on one hand, and the freely elected representatives of the people (however compromised by Bipolarchy and the regime of perpetual fundraising), my choice should be pretty obvious. Will's constitutional complaints against enacted and proposed legislation may have merit, but let's keep one general observation in mind: the rights of wealth matter more to him than the right of the people to govern themselves and the wealthy among them. He talks some big talk about rights, but that doesn't necessarily translate into democracy.


Anonymous said...

1) How about "specialized interests" instead? A bit more semantically correct in these times, I should think.

2) I don't suppose that Mr. Will would concede the possibility that the reason incumbents have a better chance at relection is because those who financially sponsor them have more money than those who finance the "other guy"? To put it plainly, perhaps money is the problem to begin with and therefore, more money will simply make the problem fatter.

Samuel Wilson said...

I suspect that Will believes in good money and bad money. The bad money comes from those "special interests" who join the "political class" in picking on business, which is where the good money comes from. Public funding, in his view, would also count as bad money for a variety of reasons. But there's plenty of evidence that big business gives money to both sides in a Bipolarchy contest, which makes me wonder who Will actually expects to subsidize a real challenge to the political class.