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Hullabaloo


Sunday, May 22, 2016

 

Strange attractors

by Tom Sullivan


Visual representation of a strange attractor
by Nicolas Desprez via Wikimedia Commons.

Dissatisfaction runs deep. This season, large blocks of American voters across the political spectrum are backing anti-establishment candidates. Yet the public does not seem to agree on a coherent set of fixes. Dissatisfaction is like a vague pain that comes and goes and moves around.

Perhaps the closest thing to a strange attractor around which left and right opinions cluster is the undue influence of money in our politics. Donald Trump claims he is so wealthy no one can buy him. Bernie Sanders has turned $27, his stated average campaign contribution, into a stadium-sized brag. But in his new book, Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections, Richard Hasen argues that the view that big money is buying elections and bribing politicians is too narrow an understanding of how money influences our politics and policy. I have not read Hasen's book, but an excerpt at Bill Moyer's blog provides a sense of where Hasen's argument will go:

It is hard for reformers to avoid the corruption talk. To begin with, “corruption” resonates with the general public — a poll commissioned by Represent.Us saw support jump from 60 to 72 percent of Americans when a campaign finance reform bill is packaged as an anticorruption measure. Using the term broadly, corruption can mean anything deviating from some perfect state of nature.
Of course, corruption shorthand has escalated in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, but the word paints with too broad a brush:
The new Citizens United era is not full of corrupt politicians taking bribes or of elections going to the highest bidder. To claim it is so puts the public’s spotlight in the wrong place, looking for elected officials to use large amounts of money for private gain. The more central problem of money in politics is something just as troubling but much harder to see: a system in which economic inequalities, inevitable in a free market economy, are transformed into political inequalities that affect both electoral and legislative outcomes. Without any politician taking a single bribe, wealth has an increasingly disproportionate influence on our politics. While we can call that a problem of “corruption,” this pushes the limits of the words too far (certainly far beyond what the Supreme Court is going to entertain as corruption) and obscures the fundamental unfairness of a political system moving toward plutocracy. The political power of the wealthy is especially troubling in our current period of rising economic inequality, when those with great economic clout can use their increased political power to protect their economic position.
Widespread use of "corrupt" and "rigged" to describe our current state even by progressive icons such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren seems to be having the unintended consequence of promoting a sense that affecting change through political means is pointless, if not hopeless. Let's just say my experience is that limited efforts of short duration are not likely to produce durable reforms. I attended the funeral of a friend last week, a former Freedom Rider with a history that went back to who SNCC, who never lost hope and never stopped fighting. Perhaps he was naive. And perhaps not.