Oligarchical Rule is Human Nature

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Originally published November 29, 2017 on Medium

We must save ourselves from ourselves

Among today’s hot topics from the 2016 presidential campaign is campaign finance reform. The list of monikers continues to grow: “Ending the corrupting influence of money in our political system,” “Getting money out of politics,” “Ending crony-capitalism.” Such a trend reflects the growing public awareness (75% to 97%, depending upon the poll) that our system is fundamentally broken in this specific way and people from across the political spectrum are fed up. Given these numbers, it is in fact quite likely that you, the reader, have a sense that our representative democracy is turning (or has already turned) into a plutocratic-oligarchy. But I’m not writing to tell you what you already know. I’m here to tell you about a solution.

As a former high-school teacher, I often taught my students to practice causal-analysis in order to determine how to solve a problem. I taught them that if one does not correctly identify the root cause of a problem, any perceived solutions will likely be misguided and, therefore, counterproductive. Spend a little more time to determine the root cause, and you will actually solve problems faster, not to mention actually solve them. Thankfully, there are countless scholars out there, from Professor Larry Lessig, author of Republic Lost, to Professor Peter Matthews, author of Dollar Democracy, who have done extensive research to prove what you and I have been sensing for quite some time: we are losing our democracy.

The reason that we are dealing with a crippling and growing imbalance of wealth and power in the United States is that the institutions with power are compelled in a number of ways to serve, not the public interest, but the private interests that can influence them with the most money. Public schools, prisons, police, firemen, military, healthcare — all of these are being systematically purchased and thus disseminated by powerful people for powerful people, without any interest (and often with a direct financial disincentive) toward helping anyone else. Not only is this terribly unrepresentative of the concerns and needs of the citizenry, it is also a breeding ground for such nefarious pursuits as corporate welfare, tax evasion, and monopolies that destroy small businesses. The entire phenomenon of these occurrences are closely related, and it is all unacceptable.

Studies show that wealth distribution in America is more extreme than any time since the Great Depression. One only has to Google the resources of monied interests gearing up for the 2016 election, which is still a year away, to see just an inkling of the problem. A 2014 Princeton study showed that over the course of 1800 policies since 1980, the “public will” had zero correlation to the policies implemented by our politicians, while there was a direct correlation between the richest one percent of the country and their preferred policies being adopted into law. Under no measure, technical or functional or visceral, is this a democracy. So how did we get here? How did we arrive at a system where laws are so heavily skewed to favor the extreme minority over the vast majority, even though everyone has a vote? The two-word answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: human nature.

If someone does something to help me, I will naturally feel inclined to help them in return, especially if this cycle leads them to helping me once again. We spend much of our lives thinking idealistically, and much of the rest of the time thinking pragmatically (or selfishly, sometimes), and the idea of helping others in order to help ourselves lies at the nexus of the two. Unfortunately, politicians do not rise above this basic human instinct.

This natural tendency to become corrupted by our own self-serving interests is what leads to political dysfunction and it begins with the way our campaigns are funded. The process can be summarized as follows: candidates raise money as they run for office (as much money as possible), then get elected, then write and vote for laws, then raise money again for their next election. If they don’t please the people who give them the bulk of their campaign money, they usually don’t win their next election; therefore, knowing this reality, they are beholden toward using their time in office to curry favor with those who are most likely to extend their careers with a future donation. What do people with a lot of money and power want in return for their donations? To keep their money and power, usually, which means to keep their potential competition (i.e. us) from getting their money and power as a result of would-be beneficial public policy. Institutions (healthcare, education, prisons) are structured by their laws, which are written by legislators, who seek campaign money. Period.

What this means is that in order to solve the problems in our country that you and I care about most, we have all got to talk about the boring details of how we finance our political candidate’s campaigns. As long as we can remember that those boring details end up ruining lives and our democratic republic as we know it, perhaps we can remain interested in this rather boring and opaque subject compared to the pet political issues we all have (mine include education, net neutrality and the environment, among others). Thus, despite its lack of flashiness, this is the most important issue on which to concentrate. It is the door that needs to be opened before any further progress can be made because everything that comes after that is what builds the house we live in: democracy or oligarchy.

In order to move forward, what we need to remember is that we do have the power to fix this. Voting is power. Knowledge is power. And these are powers that we cede to others with interests that may not match ours if we get so frustrated by the system that we decline to vote or learn about the issues we’re voting on. So, what you need to know is this: campaign finance is simply the way in which candidates fund their elections, be it for their staff or for expenses like ads, billboards, flyers, plane tickets, and so forth. The question we need to address is: How should campaigns be funded?

The reality is that there is more than one answer. We should and must overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (and related cases), instill strong transparency laws, limit campaign contributions and expenditures, and fund our elections publicly. And we must employ a combination of these plans. The details of these solutions are a lot to cover, each of which deserves their own article, but the following is easy to digest:

  • Transparency has been proven to cause the wealthy to reduce their contributions at least by a little, and to at least spread out their contributions so they don’t look like they’re favoring one politician over another. Transparency alone, however, simply serves to expose the problem, not fix it. Candidates who propose transparency as an answer to this problem are going in the right direction, but not far enough because it is not the root cause of the problem: how we fund our campaigns.
  • Limits on individual contributions are also helpful, but can be easily circumvented, and thus are also not sufficient to tackle this problem. Limits also have another problem since Citizens United, alongside other Supreme Court decisions (the 2014 McCutcheon vs. FEC decision is one), made placing limits on some contributions and all expenditures unconstitutional, which means that a true fix would require a reversal of these decisions.
  • The option of publicly funded elections directly deals with how campaigns are funded, thus providing a real solution to the root cause. Such elections level the playing field and allow average people like you and me to be able to run for office — usually people who share common experiences with us have ideas that relate to our lives more tangibly than the ideas of billionaires.
  • Publicly funded elections can incorporate both transparency and caps on contributions and expenditures, even in the wake of Citizens United and McCutcheon.
  • Publicly funded elections allow candidates to spend more time with the citizens who will be electing them since they–since we–are the ones funding their campaigns.

Unlike some common stereotypes, most politicians are not terrible people. They are people who want to keep their job and do as much good as possible within the broken system they are forced to operate under. It is up to us to fix that system. Like any other job, politicians work for whoever pays them, which means that they either work for their wealthy donors, or they work for the public. If we want strong transparency laws, and if we want to empower legislators to be able to stand up to Washington, we must change the way their campaigns are funded. If their human nature is to scratch backs in order to get theirs scratched, we must make sure that the citizens are the ones on the other side of that transaction, not the plutocrats. By changing the way elections are funded, we can free our elected officials from the corrupting influence of money in our political system, making elections fair enough that anyone can run for public office, not just millionaires and their allies. This is what publicly funded elections will do for us.

Ricardo Gonzalez