Originally published at http://www.commonsenseman.com/.
If you’re at all politically inclined, chances are that in addition to a deluge of campaign mailers, you also receive the occasional (or not so occasional) entreaty for money from a candidate, political party or interest group. These solicitations usually focus on a recent hot-button issue or make a more general ideological driven appeal to sway supporters to pledge money. The one constant is political opponents portrayed in the most unflattering way possible (to say the least). Is it any wonder we are so polarized when in addition to increasingly vitriolic campaigns, we must also endure non-stop year round appeals for money to stop the demonic hordes from the other party?
Is it any wonder compromise has become a dirty word when people are led to believe at every turn, in the basest terms possible, that the other side is one to be despised and feared?
The relentless and never-ending effort to finance the campaigns of those running for office has helped coarsen the discourse in this country to the point where we are now barely governable. You often hear people talk about speech needing to remain free for a democracy to function, and that is true, but democracy also requires respectful discourse so that mutually beneficial compromises can be reached. Our system has become a bi-annual system of mutually assured destruction in that, no matter which side wins, the public’s belief in the institution erodes that much more. In the end, it doesn’t matter who is in charge if all that remains to rule is the rubble of our once great country undone by our inability to cooperate.
Yet how do we improve the quality of discourse without infringing on freedom of speech? As long as the driving force in elections is money, pursuit of money will trump all else. Lessen the need for money, and the incentive to pull out all stops – including demagoguery or slandering of opposition – lessens as well.
A few options:
~ Clean money systems which provide qualifying candidates funding to compete with the candidates who are little more than mouthpieces for special interests – corporate, union or otherwise – would offer voters alternatives, but wouldn’t completely forestall fundraising efforts.
~ Increased transparency might discourage some of the nastier stuff. Just as candidates tend to be more polite at debates when their target is standing there ready to defend themselves, so too would the tone modulate if people knew who was financing all the political activity. Politicians know who’s behind these ads – instant transparency would ensure voters and regulators (or whatever passes for them at the FEC) would as well. This alone would not significantly improve the quality of discourse, but amongst its many other benefits, it might take some of the harder edges off political rhetoric.
~ An opposing approach is to create a blind trust for political donations so no one would know who funded campaigns and there would be no quid-pro-quo. This is the hardest to predict the outcome of – it could have a huge effect, or none at all as campaigns would still need anonymous money and the pleas would continue unabated.
~ Finally, constitutional amendments attempting to take private money out of elections or allowing Congress to regulate political spending might have an impact; but would also (likely) leave independent groups unaffected, and so the affect would be negligible. Even so, such an amendment is unlikely to gain the broad support necessary to gain passage, and might have unintended consequences if it did.
Clearly this is not an easy question to answer, but it is important to note the constant barrage endured by the most politically active people in this country – one which constantly paints the opposing side in the worst possible terms – and the corrosive effect this has had on our ability to govern ourselves. Under such relentless reinforcement of this narrative, it takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves that most people who disagree with us politically are not our enemies, just people working towards a similar goal with a different idea for how to get there. Unfortunately few are willing or capable of making this effort and the quality of both discourse and governance have suffered accordingly.
The ironic part is that we don’t even like the people shoveling this swill. Opinion polls would not be so universally low if most Americans agreed with the platforms of the two major political parties, yet our willingness to buy into the two-party dynamic ensures that nothing ever changes. The problem isn’t that left and right can’t compromise, it is that the Democratic and Republican Parties stand in our way from doing so. They cannot effectively raise money if they work harmoniously with the other side for the greater good, and because money rules all in Washington there is zero incentive to do something so damaging to the bottom line.
The rot of money is not just in the direct (and disastrous) effect it has on specific policy decisions, but also in the pervasive coarsening of public discourse that is making us increasingly ungovernable. Whatever the solution to this problem, it must deal with the effect money currently has on our political system and eliminate the incentive to constantly paint the opposition as evil.
Cooperation shouldn’t be a dirty word, and those with different political beliefs don’t need to be sworn enemies demonized at every turn. Money in political campaigns creates a motive for political players to pretend otherwise…especially when we keep rewarding them for doing so.