06 July 2012

Citizens United: the Democrats' excuse

Maybe I'm just in a foul mood, but I found myself quite annoyed by Eric Alterman's column in the latest issue of The Nation. It's one of his usual rants against how corporate-media evenhandedness in political reporting results in a bias in favor of the Right -- or how any commentary is biased, in Alterman's view, if it doesn't identify the GOP and its donors as The Problem with America. That doesn't bug me too much, though it would bug me less if it didn't come with the implicit corollary that the Democratic party is The Solution. What really bugged me was Alterman's whining about the Wisconsin recall campaign which, as you'll recall, failed to remove Gov. Walker from office. It annoys him to read one report that "a record amount of money was spent" in Wisconsin, when for him the real story is that Walker's supporters spent seven times the money recall supporters did. For Alterman, that spending disparity is presumably the sole reason Walker remains in office. Nothing else matters.  He perceives an "extraordinary imbalance that lets one side drown out the other" resulting from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. This rhetoric of "drowning out" is what got to me. Can anyone honestly, objectively say that the Democratic party is "drowned out" of any campaign in which it participates? Would anyone in Wisconsin say that the recall movement and the subsequent do-over campaign of Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee was drowned out? Let me rephrase that: would anyone other than a die-hard Democrat say so?

The fear that whoever spends the most will win an election has always been one of the weakest arguments in favor of campaign-finance reform. There are simply too many cases of the richest candidate losing for that claim to be convincing or compelling. But this is the ground on which Alterman apparently wants to stand. I suspect that's because it gives Democrats an excuse whenever they lose. Democrats don't have to ask how they failed to motivate their "rightful" constituents; they can simply say that voters didn't get the message because Republicans drowned it out. Partisans like Alterman rage against Citizens United, but I wonder if they'd overturn it if they could. I suppose they would if they really believe that the the ruling gives Republicans some automatic advantage, and Democrats some automatic handicap. But such an assumption is itself part of the problem with Democrats, many of whom now seem really to believe last year's 99%-vs-1% rhetoric and assume that the 1% is uniformly against them. But the idea that the only way Democrats can lose is if Republicans and their plutocrat pals spend more money is a fallacy. It relieves Democrats from any responsibility to think about the 21st century. It allows them to rest upon their historical sense of entitlement, their presumption to be the rightful representatives of the working classes and therefore of the majority of the country. It takes too much for granted, including the Democratic party's own ponderous wealth.

Who drowns out whom is a matter of perspective. It irks Democrats to read this, but the real problem with money in politics is not the way Republicans drown them out, but they way both major parties drown out everybody else. Was there ever any thought among Wisconsin voters of replacing Gov. Walker with anyone besides the Democrat he had already beaten? If so, it was drowned out. Is there a perception in the country that Democrats are inadequate to the challenges posed by Republicans, plutocrats, the economy, foreign policy, etc., or a feeling that those constituencies historically claimed by Democrats might be better represented by other people? Those notions aren't just drowned out; Democrats hit them point-blank with fire hoses whenever they appear. If money has drawn a dividing line, Democrats may well whine with envy that it separates them from the Republican bounty, but the rest of us see a line separating Democrats and Republicans alike from any new movement or party we might want to create.  Democrats crying foul over Republican spending is like Godzilla protesting against King Kong's reach advantage. The people of Tokyo may concede the objective fact, but don't expect them to empathize with the giant lizard. They probably wonder instead how there are not just one, but two giant monsters crushing everyone in their struggle for dominance? Which one is taller matters less than how either of them got so big. Any complaint about money in politics that doesn't acknowledge that Democrats are part of the problem is just partisan special pleading. Read Eric Alterman's opinion columns accordingly.


Calmoderate said...

The "real problem with money in politics is not the way Republicans drown them out, but they way both major parties drown out everybody else." That's exactly right.

Essentially all the rhetoric and "debate" we get from the two status quo-defending parties fits whatever their limited ideologies and/or their self-interests dictate. They won't tolerate anything else because that threatens the status quo, their grip on power and their revenue streams.

Given that the supreme court has elevated legal entities to near-human status in terms of free political speech (the Citizens United case) and considers spending money to be free speech, what can be done to alter the terms of debate?

The press is basically useless in terms of presenting alternative points of view. No hope for change from there. As far as I can tell, public financing of campaigns is about the only thing left that has even a remote chance of maybe affecting discourse. Unfortunately, it is unpopular with the public and its chance of being implemented is low. Both parties and most special interests would oppose public financing. That alone is probably enough to prevent meaningful change.

Anonymous said...

The problem with America is the right wing. Well, one of the problems. Of course, another problem is the democrats. Another problem is religious fundamentalists (once again trying to get congress to sneak through a ban on porn, for example). The disparity of wealth is a problem, as is the fact that the wealthiest nation refuses to ensure a proper education for all of its citizens. The over-commercialization and commodification of just about everything is a problem.

But really, the biggest problem with America is Americans. Stupid, gullible, hateful, petty, spiteful, superficial, vain, arrogant. I can think of very little good to say about Americans these days.