America exists because a group of citizens demanded representation. They rejected the notion that society functioned best with a common, unlearned rabble governed by an elite nobility. They saw the virtue of educated citizens representing themselves. This is the most fundamental idea of our republic.
All these years later, it’s distressing to think about how much we’ve strayed from that vision. While we retain much of the promise our founders saw in us, our government is manifestly broken. The particular reasons for concern are interesting, but they all point to the same symptom: a government no longer faithfully acting on behalf of the people.
In the current version of our government, members of Congress are spending half or more of their time raising money for elections, and getting the vast majority of that money from a tiny group of donors comprising less than one twentieth of a percent of the population. In other words, our elected representatives are dependent not on the people as a whole—in the way envisioned by James Madison—but on uber-donors pursuing initiatives that are almost always inconsistent with the interests of broader society.
This was the message of John McCain in 1999. He railed against the influence of corporations and special interests upon elections. He saw a threat to democracy from both the left and the right–a threat that sought to win persistent control of the political and legislative agenda by buying its way into office and then rigging the electoral process to ensure a permanent seat at the head of the table.
Like many Americans, I was captivated by McCain’s message. I felt something had changed in the mid-1990s, and our politics had grown more bitter and divisive than before. It seemed that big media and big money were making a sport out of this divisiveness, creating a new kind of gladiatorial spectacle to entertain us. Some of us saw the perverse nature of this; we were cheering at the burning down of our own chapel of civility. McCain was the first national politician to embrace this troubling idea, and it seemed to me he was interested not only in addressing the system, but in freeing himself from an obligation to participate in it. If successful, he could ignore fundraising and stock politics and talk straight. This would make him a transcendent and potentially transformational leader.
McCain seemed to grasp a bundle of concepts both simple and foundational—something at the heart of the insidious defects that have crept into American government: if money equals speech, more money equals more speech (and less money equals less speech). Moreover, because politics is a human endeavor subject to human limitations, there’s only so much political speech to be had. When human limits of sending, receiving, transmitting, and absorbing are encountered, available speech has run out and no more voices will be heard. McCain built his 2000 campaign around these ideas, and the fact it didn’t work doesn’t make these ideas any less accurate or important.
Bracket that thought for a moment. We’ll return to it. First, it’s helpful to think about why it didn’t work for McCain.
The problem with establishments is that they are established, meaning they are sturdy, dug in, and resistant to external influence. They are especially resistant to attempts at making them change whatever has made them successful. The modern Democratic and Republican parties are establishments. They’ve become successful by raising money and spending it on formulating political narratives. They’ve determined that the more money they raise and spend, the more successful they’ll be at getting their candidates elected. The more their candidates are elected, the more their power is aggregated, making it increasingly easy for them to frame and structure the political process to serve their ideological or rational ends.
This has had a noticeably negative impact on our electoral and political processes. Elections are focused on fundraising, and politics is focused on servicing the interests of those whose donations bought them time on the calendar of the person they helped elect. It’s not that every elected representative is aloof, out of touch, or uncaring when it comes to the concerns of rank and file citizens (though some certainly qualify for such labels). It’s that there is only so much time and focus for each representative to expend. This means prioritization determines how a representative will govern, and right now, raising money is priority number one.
Efforts to raise money encroach on time that should be spent on voter concerns. Efforts to show good faith to donors who gave huge sums to fund campaign activities encroach further. Lengthier election cycles and constant media scrutiny, combined with the influence of money, place representatives in constant campaign mode, which is different from and in competition with governance mode. Campaign mode is about kissing babies, smiling for cameras, and exploiting opponents. Governance mode–when things are working correctly–is about communicating with constituents, analyzing proposals, drafting legislation, and building consensus. As governance mode has been increasingly pushed aside by campaign mode, citizens have noticed a degradation in the quality of representation they’re receiving in Congress. This is no doubt what has fostered historically low congressional approval ratings.
But sadly, this is not a surprise. For reasons we’ve already discussed, it’s a perfectly predictable outcome.
If the political parties are establishments resistant to changing what has made them successful, and if they’ve become successful by raising huge sums of money, and if more money equals more political speech, it follows that three discouraging things are true.
First, campaign mode will continue to grow until governance mode is effectively suffocated, leaving us without governance. Second, elected politicians will never self- reform the system by which elections are funded. A few of them—as McCain did—might say they will, and a few of those might earnestly mean it, but the reality of partisan politics means there will never be enough votes to get it done. Finally, unless reform happens, those with more money will eventually buy up all political speech, leaving those with less money lacking any influence whatsoever over their elected representatives. This would leave the people unable to restore governance, permanently orphaning the nation from its most fundamental founding principle. The first signs of this are already visible. We’re fighting a war no one wants, everyday citizens are being subjected to the tools of professional espionage on home soil, and we have taxation, spending, and entitlement programs are in need of reform. Yet our representatives are not doing anything about it. They are not heeding our will. Without reform as to how they’re elected, they never will.
So reform it must be. But how? Several ideas have been proposed. Perhaps a Constitutional Amendment limiting the role of money in elections. Maybe a statute providing for the public funding of elections and giving every citizen the same amount of money to contribute, thereby guaranteeing the same amount of speech. Perhaps other proposals that place limits on the use of money in creating a political narrative, thereby indirectly creating a disincentive to fundraising. Any or all of these would be better than the current system. While I’m partial to public funding because I think it strikes the right balance between free speech and healthy elections, I support all of these proposals. At this point, it’s more important to build pressure behind the idea of reform than get into a secondary debate about how to reform.
Reform should not be thought about as a vague or far-off ideal. It is urgently needed because our system is corrupt. Not in the sense that politicians are taking bribes or engaging in quid pro quo. But in the sense that the Congress–specifically the House of Representatives–is no longer sufficiently dependent upon the people for its political prospects, and thus, does not faithfully act according to their interests and motivations. This is one area where our founders were clear and where their intent ought to be heeded; they wanted the House to be dependent upon the people as a whole, not a narrow and unrepresentative subset of the people.
Now, don’t take this argument as a critique of the design of our system. It is ingenious, and we should revere it. But precisely because it allows itself to grow and change over time, imperfections will creep in. This is where we, as citizens, play a vital role. The founders relied on the idea of an invested and civically active citizenry to spot political maladies and actively work against them. They wanted common people to hold their government accountable. To validate the trust they placed in us, we must actively preserve our role. This is why I marched in the New Hampshire Rebellion (NHR).
Fifteen years ago this month, New Hampshire native Doris “Granny D” Haddock walked 3,200 miles from LA to DC with a sign around her neck that said “CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM.” It was six months into her 13-month walk aimed at sending Washington a message about the corrupting influence of money in campaigns that John McCain launched his presidential campaign in Bedford, New Hampshire. In his opening speech, he critiqued the systemic corruption in Washington, DC that he accurately saw as enabled and furthered by a broken election system drowning in money. By the time Granny D finished her walk in February of 2000, McCain had won three of six Republican primaries, including New Hampshire. For a brief moment, it seemed like the people might be on the path to renewing representative democracy. But the energy of that moment faded. Temporarily.
Today, the people of New Hampshire—joined by many from across the country and the political spectrum—have committed themselves to re-stoking the fires lit by McCain and Haddock. They’re tired of candidates coming to their state every four years promising to bring change to Washington, DC . . . only to become co-opted contributors to the same flawed system after they get elected. They want change, and an increasing number of Americans are with them. With the unprecedented level of money sloshing around in politics has come a new level of dysfunction, and the people have taken notice. Once again, the moment is ripe for change, and if the people persist, they can prevail. NHR is a movement designed to make campaign reform the central issue in the New Hampshire primary in 2016 so that every presidential candidate will have to answer one simple question: “What will you do to address the system of corruption in Washington, DC?” New Hampshire has an early primary heavily covered by national media. If this issue becomes central in it, we can hope to reignite the spark of concern across the country, and elect a president committed to reforming and renewing our system.
I’ve been asked recently why I care about this. Or more specifically, why this and not other things that might seem more urgent or important. The answer I give is that nothing is more urgent or important to our national survival than fixing this issue. This is a domestic enemy, something I swore a lifetime oath to defend against. History has been unkind to republics that ignore fundamental diseases like this one, so I consider pursuing this issue a continuation of public service.
But there are also two very personal reasons for my commitment to this. The first is my perspective as a veteran. I’ve been to places in the world where corruption has corroded governance and civic virtue has failed to step in. They devolve into violence, chaos, and unspeakable suffering. People die horrible deaths as these societies come apart, and others perish in the struggle to restore them or to secure them as they attempt to regain footing. Having lost friends in such struggles, it’s important to me that we protect the values my friends fought to export and uphold. The current political morass in Washington can’t be what they died for. The petty, self-interested narrowness of our current system is beneath their honor. We must restore their honor by restoring our system.
But I’m also concerned as a citizen. I feel we have a duty to hand this country to our children in better shape than we found it. We have no right to behave selfishly or myopically or narrowly in the way we care for this republic. It doesn’t belong to us. We’re temporary custodians. Those who follow us are entitled to enjoy the fruits of American liberty, just as that right fell to us. We’re abusing that right and unjustly diminishing something we will eventually bequeath to our children, and we should care about that. If we’re to give them a republic to which they can proudly claim membership, we must arrest our inexorable drift toward political unraveling.
I hope you’ll take an interest in this issue. If you’re still reading and passionate enough to sponsor my participation in tomorrow’s march, contact Rootstrikers. This is not a partisan issue and we’re not a partisan group; just a collection of concerned citizens working to reclaim what rightfully belongs to the people–our voice in government.