When citizens want one thing and lobbyists want another, often we end up kicking the can down the road; we should be cementing cans after they’re kicked.
There are some political issues that enjoy strong, bipartisan support among voters: quality universal education; affordable healthcare; clean air & water; fair elections; and sensible gun laws.
Campaign Finance Reform
Oh, and campaign finance reform. Americans, liberal and conservative, overwhelmingly want to overturn Citizens United. I mention campaign finance reform last, but it should really be first because it is key to all of the rest. Unrestricted campaign donations are the reason we can’t get the other government reforms. Unrestricted campaign donations allow the wealthy individual and the wealthy corporation to block reforms they don’t like, even reforms that citizens overwhelmingly want.
For decades kleptoplutocrats have used unrestricted campaign donations and dark money to grab control of our government. Money heavily influences elections. And money, unfortunately, also influences the courts, in multiple ways. Most of all, money influences judicial elections; or when judges are appointed, money influences the elected officials who appoint the judges.
McCain-Feingold was an attempt at campaign finance reform. Many people worked hard for it, but it did not had the desired effect, in large part because of the Citizens United ruling. And the Citizens United ruling was the result of over a century of effort by the wealthy to apply a perverse view of Constitutional fundamentalism, thwart democracy, and increase their control over the country. The ability of the wealthy to pervert our system began with the roots of Citizens United: the Fourteenth Amendment, insuring equal protection under the law. Corporations have argued ever since that they should enjoy protection equal to that of citizens.
Which is a problem: corporations aren’t citizens. They don’t vote. They have no fiduciary responsibility to the nation, only to their investors. In fact, they have a fiduciary responsibility to break the law and betray the country, if there is sufficient profit in it.
From Democracy to Kleptoplutocracy
Obviously, the game is currently heavily tilted toward kleptoplutocrats. So they will mount stiff resistance against all attempts at campaign finance reform, because it would curtail their ability to influence legislation and the courts.
Campaign finance reform faces interests other than kleptoplutocrats, however. Typically, the political incumbent’s advantage is in being able to raise more money than his challengers. So he, too, is unlikely to support anything that levels the playing field, which campaign finance reform would help to do.
Then there is an often-overlooked lobby who will also resist campaign finance reform: the media. Consider where candidates spend those huge donations. Liquor stores make the bulk of their money in the holiday season. Media makes the bulk of theirs in the election season. It makes it that much harder to implement campaign finance reform.
Kick the Can Down the Road
So we want campaign finance reform, and our elected officials tell us they want campaign finance reform. But in smoky rooms and cloistered chambers, the greed of big money and the ambition of our elected officials circumvents both the public will and the public weal.
And so our elected officials keep kicking the can down the road.
How can we change this?
The Narcissist’s Vulnerability
The key to understanding the kleptoplutocrat lies in psychiatry: he is a narcissist. The narcissist wants all attention, and all control. His weakness is that he also he wants it all right now.
An important part of the kleptoplutocrat’s narcissism, and part of his impatience, is a diminished concern for the distant future. Do it my way, serve me and my vision, and the world will be a better place… for me. The narcissist will not make decisions to protect the future, he refuses to see beyond his tawdry self-interest. The [vicious kings of antiquity] insisted on this strategy, which insured that progress was slow, and that most of humanity lived lives of misery, squalor, and horror through the first 10,000 years of civilization. After 1776, once we began constraining the narcissists and the kleptoplutocrats, progress began to accelerate, and the modern world emerged.
Of course, the really successful narcissist must have an aspect of the Machiavellian; he can exhibit great patience in working toward what he wants. The kleptoplutocrat’s current efforts are nicely chronicled in Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains. The date this most recent power grab began is easy: 1954. It all started with Nobel Laureate James McGill Buchanan responding to Brown v Board of Education. It accelerated when Charles Koch began investing money and throwing weight behind Buchanan in the late 1990s.
The Long Game
So the kleptoplutocrat can play the long game. Nevertheless, his underlying desire is still one of impatience.
That insight is key, it is our opportunity. We can use the narcissist’s shortsightedness to turn the tables on him. His vulnerability is that he doesn’t care much what happens later on, so we need to target that myopia.
To do this, I propose that we take the chronic dysfunction of kicking the can down the road, and retrofit it. When politicians are kicking cans down the road, we should be pressuring them to start cementing cans in place, where they land.
For instance, say we write a law, or perhaps an Amendment to the Constitution, that says campaign finance reform will begin at some later date. We kick the can down the road a few years. But we then cement the can in place. We write our reform legislation so that it will not take effect for 10 or 15 years. That is less threatening the kleptoplutocrat, and his desire for power now.
Then we make it even more palatable to the kleptoplutocrat, through gradual implementation. A law for campaign finance reform might state that in 10 years, the maximum donation for an election at level x is y dollars. Then in 15 years, that maximum will begin decreasing by 3% a year, until it reaches z dollars, perhaps something pegged to median full-time income.
Part of Something is Better than All of Nothing
The kleptoplutocrats, elected officials, and the media won’t like it, but it will be far enough off, and the effects will be less objectionable. If we marshal enough popular support, they will have to relent.
This strategy means that it will take longer than we would like to achieve justice. But we face the same choice we will be offering the kleptoplutocrat: Part of something is better than all of nothing.
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The abuses and exploitations from corporations and kleptoplutocrats, and the roots of those problems in the horrors of ancient history, are explored in my book Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths, recently published by the University of Louisiana Press.