How Money and Power Work Together

This essay was posted to Bobby’s Facebook page on August 22, 2016

My first child is expected to be born on January 20, 2017.

It occurs to me that that date is the day the next American president takes office, a coincidence which forces me, as I imagine most parents do, to take stock of what sort of a nation my son or daughter will grow up in.

The ballot we cast in November is both the focal point of what ails us as a nation, and the only reasonable instrument of its redemption.

Once seized, power must be preserved, else the efforts that led to victory are for naught. This is as true for the most well intentioned public servant, as it is for the scaliest caricature of a politician the mind can conjur.

The easiest way to give yourself a good chance at keeping your office is to prevent those who opposed you from having a say in the matter. So the dominant party in each state’s legislature will carve up the districts once a decade with farcical boundaries that aim to set their opposition up as a minority in as many districts as possible and, when that can’t be done, pack as many of them as you can into a single, contorted district, rather than having to compete with them in a balanced race.

So, with that done, there are two principal ways to go about winning the next election. Working hard to represent those who elected you, protecting their interests and winning acclaim and respect with good works is certainly the ideal way to do it, and the path that many good men and women do take.

On the other hand, the unprecedented scale and quality of the Bread and Circuses of our time sets a stage where most people have a low level of engagement with history and our current affairs.

On this low road, politics can be shaped into another avenue of entertainment — cheer on your beloved Blue Team to crush the agenda of Red Team and stick it to the Fat Cats and the Legion of Bumpkins who are responsible for whatever you don’t like about your life! Or, perhaps rally around the Red Leader who vows to punish your enemies – whether they be the foreigners who come to rob you of your life and livelihood, or the elites who have robbed you of your dignity! The bottom line is that you have reason to be terrified of the Other, who will take away that which you hold dear.

This latter approach can be driven by a well managed marketing campaign. My experience in business and marketing has taught me that there are endless creative and innovative ways to carry a message to the public, as long as the funding to execute it is similarly limitless.

Fortunately our major corporations, labor unions, titans of industry and non-profit interest groups are eager to supply the cash in exchange for policy and law that suits their preferences.

Conveniently enough, the media where our politics and that marketing plays out is owned by the very same class of massive multi-national corporations, who have, since roughly the late 1990s, mandated that enhancing the bottom line of their parent company is the prime directive of their news divisions.

So, let’s review:
1. The politicians feed off of our moneyed interests
2. The politicians serve up policy and law that suits the needs and preferences of their clients
3. The corporations/unions/wealthy individuals/special interests make way more money than they spent due to favorable policy
4. The politicians then take that money and use it to win re-election, buying among other things, broadcast airtime
5. The news media, which is owned by the sort of massive corporations that own the politicians, turns American politics into a football game of Team Red vs. Team Blue
6. Driven by the expert marketing to which we’ve been exposed, we vote for our preferred party
7. Since those in power at the state level draw the districting maps, for the vast majority of the nation, voting for your preferred party re-elects the incumbent, which
8. Ensures more money for his or her true constituency, the monied interests that give him or her the money to run the campaign

This is the principal challenge of our time; to redeem and reclaim American democracy, to heal the divisions and mistrust in our society that stand in the way of progress. This reform that will restore the will and voice of the people in government is critical, and must happen before we can hope to effectively address other imporant issues such as social justice, taxes, environmental policy, immigration and a host of other matters where policy is currently corrupted by outside influence.

So, how to go about this? Congress cannot be expected to suddenly develop a conscience and surrender a system that keeps its members in power.

The answer lies in state, county and municipal offices. These elections fly under the media radar and the general public consciousness relative to federal offices, so the slick marketing of incumbents can be better countered by a grassroots effort led by candidates committed to reform good governance. State legislatures define the congressional districting that becomes increasingly manipulated to secure the power of one party or the other, and state and local law dictates campaign rules specific to those areas or municipalities, even if running for federal office.

Perhaps most critically, we the people have another tool at our disposal that allows us to circumvent corrupted legislative bodies — direct democracy through ballot initiatives. This most grassroots of action allows citizens to craft legislation, rally support for it, and put it on the ballot along with that year’s elected offices.

In Maryland, we unfortunately lack this power at the state level — ballot questions you may recall from past years are referendums on bills already passed by the legislature, meaning nothing that would threaten the gravy train enjoyed by its members or its parties. Fortunately, many cities and counties do allow us to circumvent our elected officials — Montgomery County, for instance, will have the option this fall of imposing term limits on the county council.

So while Clinton and Trump dominate the nation’s political attention — and rightly so, as the choice between them is starker than in many presidential elections — I urge you to read up on your candidates for local and state office (in Maryland, the state offices aren’t up this year but in 2018) and learn about the issues that will be available directly on the ballot. If you want this fixed, that’s where it’s going to happen.

Change begins at home.

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