Matters of Democracy

As mentioned previously, there was a talk on campus last night by a couple of activists, Michael Berg and Joan Mandle. Berg is an anti-war activist, best known as the father of Nick Berg who was infamously beheaded on video in Iraq. He’s also a former Green Party candidate for Congress in Delaware. Mandle is the Executive Director of Democracy Matters, a student activist group dedicated to election reform.

Berg’s story was mostly personal, and very interesting, but I don’t have a great deal to say about it. Mandle’s talk was more a straigthforward pitch for public financing of elections through “clean campaign” laws, and most of what I want to say about the event spins off that.

One psychological note: I’m naturally a contrary sort, and not terribly interested in talks or blog posts that are primarily dedicated to people agreeing with each other. Which is why, even though I’m substantially in agreement with Mandle’s positions, I tend to get hung up on relatively minor points– disagreement provides an opportunity for conversation, while agreement is dull. (This also applies to things like this Republic of T post about the atheism questions of the past couple of days– I probably agree with him about every policy matter he cites, and for that matter, with 90% of the policy positions of Larry Moran. That’s not interesting to me, though.)

Anyway, there were a bunch of things that bugged me about Mandle’s argument, starting with the statement that all of our major party political candidates are either from wealthy elites, or beholden to wealthy elites. Ordinary people simply can’t afford to run for office, because they don’t have the money, or the ability to raise money.

To which I find myself saying, “Yeah, and when has that not been true?”

I mean, it’s a lovely rhetorical flourish to evoke some past golden age of American democracy, in which ordinary working-class citizens could run for Congress whenever they felt like it, but, really. Has there ever been a time when that was common? Or, to put it another way, was there ever a time when the political powers in this country weren’t from or beholden to wealthy elites?

Now, she’s right that the current cost of election campaigns is appalling, but is the current situation really qualitatively different than any time in the past? I asked about this during the question period after the talk, and she agreed that what she’s proposing would really be something new, rather than a return to some imagined democratic past.

In a similar vein, she noted that 50% of all campaign funding in the current Presidential race was drawn from only six geographical areas (citing a New York Times article that I didn’t read), out of nine hundred something. Twenty percent of the money contributed thus far comes from New York City alone. And again, I say “So what?” New York by itself accounts for something like 3% of the population, and it’s a disproportionately wealthy 3%. I’m just not that bothered by these statistics. Most of the money comes from where most of the people are, and most of the money contributed two years in advance of the election comes from people who have the money and free time to contribute to campaigns two years in advance of an election. I’m shocked. Shocked.

Again, I think public financing of campaigns is a good idea, if only because it would reduce the number of irritating inside-baseball columns about how much money various people have two stinking years before the election. In an ideal world, this would free up some time for pundits and reporters to actually write about things that matter. In the real world, alas, this will lead to even more annoying articles about how much so-and-so paid for a haircut, but I figure this is still a net win, as it will hasten the coming of the Revolution, after which political pundits will be chained to typewriters with their hands tied behind their backs until they manage to peck out the complete works of Shakespeare with their noses.

But, returning to the actual topic at hand, I’m just not that distressed that the funding for political candidates comes mostly from wealthy people, or that the candidates themselves tend to come from wealthy elites. That’s always been the case, and I don’t think even public financing would make a big difference in the candidate supply.

The biggest point of disagreement I had with both Berg and Mandle had to do with debates. Both of them complained about the way minor-party candidates are excluded from political debates, Mandle on theoretical grounds, and Berg from personal experience, having been shut out of the campaign debates during his run for Congress.

The problem is, while I agree that it sort of sucks when serious candidates are shut out on the basis of fairly arbitrary numerical cut-offs, I don’t think there’s anything to be done about it. I really don’t think you want to throw televised debates featuring absolutely every candidate on the ballot, because that way lies farce. I mean, would democracy really be served by giving the Natural Law Party a spot in the debate? The Lyndon LaRouche crowd?

The Ross Perot thing made for great theater, back in the day, but at some point, you need to do something to exclude the raving loonies if you want people to take the process seriously. And doing that is probably going to involve arbitrary numerical cut-offs of some sort. Does it suck that the Green Party misses those thresholds? Sure. Is this a Problem that requires that Something Be Done? No.

The final thing that bugged me was really sort of a Baby Boomer Reality Check. Both Berg and Mandle are vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq, and both expressed frustration that we haven’t been able to end it yet, the way that student activists did in the Sixties. Mandle in particular was very upset that the war is hugely unpopular and still continuing.

Here’s the thing: the US was actively involved in Vietnam for something like fifteen years. Mandle herself said that the beginning of really major student protests against the war was somewhere around 1965, when the draft came in. The official end of the American part of the war was in 1973, and the last troops left in 1975. That’s a minimum of eight years for student protests to end the war, even if you’re inclined to attribute the end of the war to the protest movement (I’m a little dubious about that).

Why hasn’t this war been brought to a stop? It’s only been four years, and it’s only in the last year or two that it’s really become hugely unpopular. If we had a parliamentary system of government, we could get rid of the idiots in charge, and end things more quickly, but that’s not the system we’ve got. Presidents serve for four years, even if they hit the Alan Keyes Crazification Factor threshold, and the last time we got to vote for one, the war was still relatively popular. That’s the system we’ve got, and we’re stuck with it for the moment.

It’d be lovely if we could effect major political change instantly, just by wanting things badly enough, but it doesn’t work that way. If it did, Iraq would be a booming democracy and a beacon for the entire transformed Middle East, and George Bush would be Emperor of the World. So, you know, try to keep a little perspective, OK?

These are, as I said, mostly side issues. I agree with her basic points, that the current political system is corrupt and dysfunctional, and I think public financing of campaigns is an idea worth trying. It almost certainly can’t make things worse.

Comments

  1. #1 thm
    May 4, 2007

    One thing that I think training in physics does is give a fairly good sense for which numbers are relevant and which aren’t. I think I’m more irritated that someone is trying to use the “50% of contributions from 6 geographical areas” number, without any sort of normalization for population (or wealth) in those areas, than by whatever point that number is supposed to make.

    The cost of modern elections is high, but how does it compare, per capita, to what typical Americans spend at Starbucks, or on cable television?

    I don’t really buy the idea that if somehow, the financial barriers to candidacy were lowered, and exposure to third-party candidates granted, that suddenly droves of people would start voting for, e.g. Greens instead of Democrats.

  2. #2 Brad Holden
    May 4, 2007

    To which I find myself saying, “Yeah, and when has that not been true?”

    Ah, the system has always been broken, so there is no point in fixing it?

    This is why being contrary for the sake of being contrary is usually not interesting.

    The cost of modern elections is high, but how does it compare, per capita, to what typical Americans spend at Starbucks, or on cable television?

    And this argument means what, exactly?

    I don’t really buy the idea that if somehow, the financial barriers to candidacy were lowered, and exposure to third-party candidates granted, that suddenly droves of people would start voting for, e.g. Greens instead of Democrats.

    This is certainly correct. But at no point do you actually explain why the problem is systemic, that a first-past-the-post system as the US has strongly encourages a two party system, and that funding has little to do with trying to change that.

    But, as far as I can see, your argument is a) elections are not a lot of money in total and b) rich people always ran the US so why worry?

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    May 4, 2007

    But, as far as I can see, your argument is a) elections are not a lot of money in total and b) rich people always ran the US so why worry?

    You appear to be lumping two different people together– the first quoted bit is mine, the next two are from thm’s comment. I don’t speak for thm, and he or she doesn’t speak for me.

    My problem with Mandle’s argument is that she makes it sound like we need public financing because the dominance of money is some new and horrible thing. Which it’s not. The US has survived two hundred and thirty-odd years being run by the rich, so it’s not like this is suddenly a major new crisis.

    I think public financing of campaigns is an idea that would be worth trying, but not because there’s some urgent need to counter a dramatic new development. It’s correcting a problem that’s been around forever.

    With regard to the systemic problems of a first-past-the-post system, it should be noted that Mandle did not claim that public financing was a way to boost third parties. She was pretty realistic about this in the question period, saying that the point was not so much to boost third party candidates as to reduce the influence of big donors and free representatives from the perpetual fundraising circuit they’re currently on, so they would have time to actually govern.

    Which, come to think of it, might actually be an argument against public financing…

  4. #4 CaptainBooshi
    May 5, 2007

    I would also like to raise the point that the whole idea that money drastically affects your chances is somewhat of a misconception as well, although one that’s held by pretty much every politician in the country. I’ve read studies that show that having drastically more money than your opponent to spend on campaigning really only increases the number of people who vote for you a couple of percentage points. While this can make all the difference in a close race, most races just aren’t that close.

  5. #5 Brad Holden
    May 5, 2007

    Wow, instead of adding to the discussion, I descended into self-parody. Nevermind.