Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Devil's Advocate: Does Democracy Require Clean Elections?

Recently, there was a bit of a stir when, after the DSCC and DCCC put together a special Obama fundraiser with no lobbyist or PAC money for this summer, a number of progressive-types, like Laurence Lessig, Chris Bowers, Glen Greenwald and other big-name bloggers formed themselves into a group calling itself Stop Fake Reform and penned an open letter calling on the DSCC and DCCC to "ban PAC and lobbyist contributions 365 days a year."

A couple years ago I would have cheered this on as a noble reform effort. These days, I find myself less and less amenable to this particular brand of reformism. Because to me, there's a big difference for calling for the banning of corporate donations and calling for the banning of PAC/lobbyist money. The former is, in my eyes, a real reform fight aimed at winning the Democratic Party back from elements of corporate America (especially the financial industry) that have a significant purchase on decision-making, and the other is an elitist charge at a windmill that betrays problematic thinking about democracy.

*Explanation over the fold*

The problem is that the ACLU and Amnesty International are lobbyists, and so is the NAACP and LULAC and la Raza and Asian-American groups and Native American groups, and so is the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and all their member unions, and so is National Organization for Women and every other major feminist political group, and so is the Sierra Club and the NRDC. EMILYS LIST is a PAC, and so is MoveOn, and so is Act Blue and BlogPAC. In short, every element of the Democratic Party, from labor to African-Americans to women to environmental groups, organizes themselves into lobbies and PACs, because that's how you organize in our current political system.

What makes this effort all the stranger is that many of the signees - Laurence Lessig of Change Congress and Chris Bowers of Open Left are just two examples - would be barred from contributing to the DCCC and DSCC under their proposed rules, since Lessig's group lobbies and does fund raising, and Chris Bowers is the treasurer for BlogPac.

Ultimately, where this effort is coming from is an ideological position that dislikes political institution and hierarchy, and that believes that Democratic politics should be carried about by freely-associating individuals. Institutions can be corrupted or taken over, hierarchies are elitist and too removed from the people, whereas the grassroots are noble, democratic, and genuine. It has a long intellectual tradition - it can be found both in the liberal (for the emphasis on individuals over groups) and republican (for the distrust of elites and the valorization of the common people) wings of the Enlightenment. During the American Revolution, you could find this kind of thinking in the denunciations of the King's "evil ministers," the dislike of "factions" and "cabals," the simultaneous belief in voters exercising their individual powers of reason and in voters collectively striving for the common good.

What these 4,192 signees want is a purer, higher-minded form of politics, a politics without self-interest or corruption or elites, a politics ultimately without politics. And they're not alone - you see this attitude all the time when people fulminate against "career politicians," or when people run for political office claiming to be "not a politician."

There's just one problem - it's a bad idea. An ideal democracy, where high-minded individuals ponder the ins and outs of public policy and strive to persuade each other in reasoned debate without resorting to the blunt instruments of money or propaganda or party organizations, may sound great in theory, but it just doesn't work. Politics is inherently political; it's rude and crude and vibrant and alive, and it always has been.

Consider the origins of democracy. People often point to Classical Athens as a pure democracy - all citizens met in council directly and the true leaders of the Deimos were individuals who used the power of their rhetoric to persuade their fellow citizens; elections, even for executive officers, were disparaged as too aristocratic, and Athenians selected members of the executive council by means of random lottery, so strong was their belief that anybody could rule. There's just one problem with this vision - it's a fantasy. To begin with, Athenian democracy excluded all women, all non-citizens, all children born not of two Athenian citizens, and was perfectly compatible with the owning of slaves. However, even within the normal constraints of ancient civilizations, Athenian democracy was vibrantly partisan and not a bit corrupt. Cleisthenes, who overthrew the tyrant Hippias and was hailed as the "father of Athenian democracy," was also an aristocrat who turned to the democratic side after losing a power struggle. Themistocles, who led Athens and the Greeks to victory against Persia at Salamis, was known for being a political spin-master who hustled working-class votes, systematically exiled his political rivals, and who bribed widely to achieve his goals. Pericles, who led Athens through its Golden Age, also ostracized his political opponents, pushed through laws providing free (state-subsidized) theater tickets for the poor, built the Parthenon as a massive vote-winning public works project, and provided wages for juries (another crowd-pleaser). In short, classical democracy was a rough-and-tumble affair, where radicals and aristocrats fought with propaganda, "walk-around money," free theater, character assassination, and banishment laws to win leadership of the deimos.

If we fast-forward to the modern form of democracy, that emerged from the revolutions of the 18th and 19th century, you also get an image of a vibrant and messy form of democracy. As Gordon Wood and George Rude and many other historians have shown, it was precisely the irrational, ideological, excitable, beer-and-circuses crowd that gave birth to the democratic revolution and without whom there would be no democracies in either the United States or France. Gary B. Nash and Eric Foner have both shown that urban political machines were alive and well in the American colonies before, during, and after the Revolution, issuing endorsements, running slates and passing out slate cards, conducting GOTV campaigns and street rallies, and yes, raising and spending money.

The great political machines that arose in the Age of Jackson and flourished through the turn of the century, the best known of which was New York's Tammany Hall, are often reviled as corrupting, anti-democratic, and morally bankrupt organizations that ruined the republic until liberal reformers could restore it during the Progressive Era. Yet the irony is that while the machines were certainly corrupt, they were operationally quite democratic - voter turnout at the height of the machines' influence routinely hovered at the 80-90% rate as competing machines fought for every last vote. And if they lacked the keen attention to public policy that progressive intellectuals would later wield, and if they were still as bent as corkscrews, their hearts were for universal suffrage. From the beginning, Tammany Hall fought against property qualifications for the vote: first by coordinating joint purchasing of property in 1800, then in agitating for the abolition of property qualifications for suffrage in 1827, worked to register immigrants, and continually fought against elite attempts to re-institute property qualifications or establish literacy tests and residency requirements, including major attempts in 1868 and 1876 to roll back universal suffrage in favor of suffrage for the rich.

In short, the history of democracy is the history of a grand, messy experiment in collective action, carried out on street corners and in marches, a fundamentally public and group activity.

Which makes the label of "reform" a tricky one. Among elite reformers in the Progressive Era, people who believed that voting should be a secret, individual, protected process; that government should be professionalized, and that political machines should be smashed, there has always been the undercurrent of dislike and distrust of poor people, immigrants (especially Catholics), and non-white voters "corrupting" the political process, and the desire to see the political process dominated by men of the right class. A lot of ink has been spilled about the extent of anti-democratic or elitist sentiment in the Progressive movement, but that's beyond the point. The question is what impact a lot of their reforms had. The written Australian ballot - introduced at a time when 17% of the population was illiterate - had a huge impact on the voting behavior of immigrants and African-Americans. The introduction of modern voter registration systems in the U.S offered huge opportunities to restrict access to the ballot on grounds of illiteracy, failure to pay taxes, or other qualifications. Non-partisan elections and the initiative system, especially in the state of California, have had the perverse effect of handing power over to incumbents (who have the name recognition to, for example, win both parties' primaries over less well-known opponents) and the wealthy (who have the cash to fund ballot initiative drives).

In sum, I think we need to be more careful about how we think about who counts as "reformers" and who counts as "special interests" and what "reforms" actually mean. Campaign finance is one of those areas where the rhetoric of reform often gets in the way of clear thinking about what we want. Ultimately, it's not the labor groups or the environmental groups or the women's groups or the NAACP that do or should bother reformers. The real threat to democracy is the unequal balance of power between the rich and the poor, between ordinary citizens and corporations in the political process. So as a campaign finance matter, I'd welcome the prohibition of all corporate lobbyist and PAC money from the Democratic Party. I'd also welcome measures to establish public funding of political parties and campaigns to balance; I'd welcome a progressive matching fund that added to the political donations of poor and working class voters and taxed the contributions of the wealthy.

But there is a difference between democracy as a process and democracy as a spirit, and my disagreement with the 30 would-be reformers mentioned above is that I think they focus too much on process (lobbying and PACs = bad) and not enough on spirit (poor people contributing = good, corporations = bad). Moreover, I would challenge anyone who believes in democracy as an atomic process of solitary individuals casting their votes as expressions of belief, and the resulting distrust of political groups as "special interests." Democracy is a collective process, the exercise of power by groups of people, and in such a system, all groups are welcome, all interests are worthy of being heard. The only test of "special"ness should be the ratio of votes to dollars, because the 16,000,000 workers in unions and the 19 members of the Board of Directors of Bank of America are not equally "special."


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  2. Great article, Steve. I agree but the test is not only a ratio of votes to dollars, but the intention of the contributors. If I donate to the ACLU I have the intention of supporting a viewpoint. I should have greater rights than any corporation, those 19 members of the Board of Directors are not spending their own money but the money of a constructed entity built on the money of people buying widgets, not supporting causes.

  3. Hey Chris!

    I absolutely agree.

    One of the underlying problems we have to deal with is that a lot of corporate political behavior is legal under Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which (wrongly, in my opinion) declared corporations to be legal persons with rights under the 14th amendment.

    Corporations shouldn't have the right to political activity - they aren't citizens, or voters, or human beings.