This morning a story went out on the Associated Press wire that appeared in American newspapers under titles like “Undecided voters may sway presidential election.” These two paragraphs got me thinking:
“I don’t believe in nothing they say,” says Carol Barber of Ashland, Ky., among the 27 percent of the electorate that hasn’t determined whom to back or that doesn’t have a strong preference about a candidate.
Like many uncommitted voters, Barber, 66, isn’t really paying attention to politics these days. She’s largely focused on her husband, who just had a liver transplant, and the fact that she had to refinance her home to pay much of his health bill. “I just can’t concentrate on it now,” she says before adding, “If there were somebody running who knows what it’s like to struggle, that would be different.”
It takes a bit of a imagination to think of ways the U. S. political system might be reformed so that a person could go from Ms Barber’s current position to the presidential nomination of a major party. While President Obama as a child lived for a time in a household eligible for food stamps, and as recently as 1996 both major parties nominated candidates who had begun their lives in very modest economic circumstances, by the time each of those men entered his thirties he had risen well into the upper middle class. It isn’t to downplay the challenges that faced the poor children Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Barack Obama once were that I point out that none of them ever had to keep a gravely ill spouse alive by taking on substantial debt at a time when he likely believed that his working days were numbered.
I could suggest some reforms that might empower people like Ms Barber. Among those suggestions would be the devolution of as many legislative powers as possible to neighborhoods and other localities small enough for all citizens to assemble in face-to-face meetings, and of executive powers to boards of citizens chosen by lot. Such a system worked quite well in ancient Athens, and when systems like it are given a chance they work well in the modern world. However, I doubt that such reforms will be adopted any time soon. So, granted that we are stuck with a system in which politics is conducted on a continental scale and the average citizen can signal her or his policy preferences only by voting in occasional election, what questions should we ask as we decide how to vote?
I agree with Ms Barber that we need people in politics who can see the world from some point of view other than that of the moneyed elite among whom presidential candidates typically move. I’d add that people like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Barack Obama may be the last people we should expect to adopt such a point of view. A man who rose from a childhood of poverty and obscurity to wealth and power is likely to have learned two lessons from the experience: first, that it’s no fun to be poor; second, that the way out of poverty is to make oneself useful to the rich. Such politicians may be able to empathize with the non-rich, especially the very young among them, but they are the very last people we would expect to go out on a limb for the sake of people who are not in a position to advance their careers. And people who have been anything other than rich as adults are simply not going to have the resume that people expect of presidential candidates, let alone have the connections to organize a viable national campaign.
So, if the candidate’s personal experience of economic or other hardship is not a major criterion to use in deciding how to vote, what is? I brought up the 1996 presidential campaign, not only because Ms Barber’s remark reminds me of the Clinton-Dole pairing, but also because I read a magazine article during it that has helped to clarify my political thinking ever since. Written by David Samuels, it was titled “Presidential Shrimp: Bob Dole Caters the Political Hors d’Oeuvres” and appeared on pages 45 through 52 of the March 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine (volume 292, number 1750.) Subscribers to Harper’s can access the article online here; I stopped subscribing to it years ago, and of course I don’t keep 16 year old magazines around the house, so when I read Ms Barber’s remark this morning I had to take a trip to the library to track the article down.
One night in December, 1995, Mr Samuels’ press credentials gained him admittance to a fundraising dinner for the Dole campaign. The dinner, held at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, was organized by a group of Massachusetts businessmen, among them “Mitt Romney, the Mormon banker who nearly knocked off Ted Kennedy in the Senate race here in 1994.” It’s a bit misleading to say that Mr Romney “nearly knocked off Ted Kennedy” in that race; though an early poll or two had given Mr Romney a narrow lead, at the end of the day Mr Kennedy was reelected by a margin of 58% to 41%, hardly a squeaker. Nor is it accurate to call Mr Romney a banker; as a private equity operator, he borrowed a great deal of money, though he neither lent money nor held it in trust in the way banks do. Be that as it may, it was a bit of an uncanny moment to see his name in an article from so many years ago that I was looking up for insight into an election in which he is one of the leading candidates. What they call an “Eldritch moment,” I suppose.
Mr Samuels used vignettes from that dinner to illustrate several points about how U. S. political campaigns operated in those days. After listing many of the major donors in attendance, Mr Samuels writes: “If Bill Clinton is the candidate of high-wage, capital intensive business- investment banking, high tech, and entertainment- Dole looks increasingly like the candidate of low-wage, labor-intensive retail, manufacturing, and small business” (pages 49-50.) Nowadays, a candidate with a donor profile dominated by retail, manufacturing, small business, and agribusiness concerns would be unlikely to advance as far as Mr Dole did; as Tom Frank demonstrates in his recent book Pity the Billionaire, it is precisely these groups that have funded the “Tea Party.” Despite the headlines that tendency generated, it certainly did not represent much of an inconvenience for Mr Romney’s finance capital-backed march to this year’s Republican presidential nomination.
Mr Samuels describes Mr Dole’s public persona in a way that rings true to me: “[T]here is something appealingly adult about Dole’s performance. As he smirks and blinks, and tramples on his applause lines, it is not hard to imagine some kind of fundamental honesty that prevents him from pulling out all the stops and putting on the expected show. Dole’s best lines, his best moments in the Senate, have in common a weary and knowing respect for his audience. The very depth of Dole’s cynicism can even translate as charm: ‘I’m not going to lie to you’ is one of the few lines that the senator delivers with any conviction in public, not because Dole doesn’t lie but because, unlike so many politicians, he is at least aware that he is lying” (page 51.) As a connoisseur of world-weary cynicism, my favorite moment of the 1996 campaign came when Mr Dole, expected to repeat his campaign slogan “Bob Dole. A Better Man. For a Better America,” said “Bob Dole. Better man with a better plan. Or whatever.” The man had such contempt for the process that he couldn’t be bothered to memorize his own slogan. That almost made me want to vote for him.
This image of Bob Dole as a man who “is at least aware that he is lying” inspires Mr Samuels to a flight of political science fiction: “In a rational political system, of course, geared to show off the strengths of the two opposing candidates for the highest office in the land, Bob Dole would be allowed to go on television and explain to the voters who is supporting him (and why,) who is supporting Bill Clinton (and why,) and encourage the voters to choose between them based on this practical knowledge.” Mr Dole’s “weary and knowing respect for his audience” made it possible to imagine him operating under those conditions. I can almost hear his voice saying “I represent a consortium of investors drawn from private equity, agribusiness, trucking, manufacturing, and retail. They want a capital gains tax cut, managed trade deals like NAFTA, subsidies for exports, a rollback of workplace safety standards, and lax enforcement of securities regulations.”
I don’t disagree that our evaluation of the opposing candidates should begin with consideration of their sponsors and of what those sponsors expect in return for their investment. But it mustn’t end there. In a two-party system, we not only elect one party to fill an office, we also elect the other party to serve as the opposition. So we should not only consider each party by the potential office-holders it offers us, but also by its likely effectiveness as an opposition party. The first presidential election in which I voted was 1988. I remember one afternoon that autumn when I read literature from the campaigns of George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The more I read, the less appealing either of them looked. The next day, I was walking to a class when it occurred to me that whichever of them was elected, Congress would rewrite any proposals he sent them. That struck me like a thunderbolt. Suddenly it was obvious to me that a President Dukakis would be in no position to enact the parts of his platform I disliked, while the President Bush we actually ended up with would have a relatively easy time enacting his very worst ideas. So it was easy for me to vote for Mr Dukakis.
Moreover, while it is undoubtedly true that the people who provide the money for a campaign set the boundaries to the policies the candidate can espouse, that campaign must also enlist the support of groups that provide little money but many votes. So, our parallel universe Bob Dole would tell us not only what his sponsors expected in return for their money, but also what they had authorized him to offer to constituency groups whose support he needed. For example, none of his principal backers had a financial stake in the abortion-rights debate, yet Mr Dole adopted a rigidly anti-abortion line in preparation for the 1996 campaign. A Republican candidate who failed to do so at that time would have lost his hold over voters without whose support he would have had no chance at all in the Midwestern states where presidential elections are usually decided. A pro-choice Bob Dole would have been a certain loser and therefore an extremely poor investment.
So, when we elect a president, we elect three things: we elect a consortium of investors to serve as the president’s de facto Executive Council; we elect the other party as the official opposition; and we elect the most volatile constituency groups within the president’s coalition to a position in which they have a veto over executive action. Notice, it is not the largest groups backing the president that hold this veto; it is the groups whose support the president cannot take for granted and must earn. Therefore, when we choose a presidential candidate, we should do so because we see a way in which the economic interests of that candidates’ backers will promote the national interest as we understand it; because the other party, as the opposition party, is able to block the worst aspects of our candidate’s agenda and unable to block some of its best aspects; and because our votes, coming from us as members of particular constituencies, are unlikely to send a signal that the candidate’s party can take our support for granted.
Mr Samuels, writing more than 16 years ago, noted that wealth was rapidly becoming more concentrated in the USA: “That the economic program of the new Democratic financiers may also imply the continuing hemorrhage of American jobs abroad is of little concern to those who pay the party’s bills today: with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer at unprecedented speed, the first term of the Clinton presidency bears an alarming resemblance, in its effects if not in its tone, to that of Ronald Reagan” (page 48.) In the years since, this process of concentration has reached fantastic levels, as the financial sector’s elite has pulled away from every other group. Mr Samuels describes scenes in which manufacturing bosses join the likes of Mr Romney and other financiers as the senior-most figures at the top table. Today presidential candidates treat the heads of manufacturing businesses the way they treat disabled children, seating them at the dais when they plan to introduce the as inspiring examples of what is still possible in America. “And they are going to keep that factory and those jobs right here in the USA!,” applause, applause.
As the number of people who qualify as truly rich and the range of fields in which their fortunes are amassed shrinks, the universe of moneymen who can finance national campaigns shrinks even more rapidly. It shrinks not only in number, but also in the variety of interests it represents. This shrinking variety has three major consequences. First, the differences between the major parties fade into irrelevance as they come to depend not only on consortia of investors who are equally rich, but on consortia that are drawn from the same sectors and that massively overlap in membership. Second, the likelihood grows that the moneyed elite, small as it is and detached as it is from any but a tiny handful of concerns, will become bizarre, absorbed in ideas that may come naturally to its members for some economic or other reason, but which have no relevance to the public at large. Third, the less rapport there is between an elite and the public it governs, the more repressive its government is likely to be.
These three processes are all well advanced in the USA. For evidence that the differences between the parties are fading into irrelevance, consider the unprecedented level of legislative and executive activity in Washington in the last twenty years. Contrary to the weirdly fashionable complaint that national politics is mired in gridlock, the Congress has in these last decades appropriated money by the trillion, cut taxes by the trillion, and condoned the printing of dollars by the trillion, deregulated entire industries, required citizens to pay taxes directly to corporations in favored industries, established massive new agencies, started several wars of aggression, and granted the president unrestricted power to monitor, detain, torture, and kill whomever he pleases. Granted, politicians running for reelection rarely point to any of this activity as an achievement of which they are proud, and not one item of it enjoys the support of even a plurality of voters, let alone a majority. But it certainly constitutes extreme productivity, and every part of it was enacted with broad bipartisan support. The unpopularity of this formidably efficient bipartisan cooperation attests to the detachment of the moneyed elite that sponsors both parties from the life of the country more generally. The legislation that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have signed granting their office the powers of a police state show that the donors behind both men see the nonrich public as a source of danger to their position and want to give their political agents the means to intimidate it into silence.
Even when there is a functioning avenue of communication between the elite and the rest of us, minor parties are essential to a two party system. Voters who decide that the party they usually support has become too different from the other party can signal their displeasure by crossing over to support the other party. But in the absence of minor parties, voters who decide that their party has become too much like the other party have no effective way to signal their opinion. Abstaining can send that message, but may not give the party a clear incentive to alter its behavior. Given a choice between continuing to do what they have been doing and holding on to whatever success they have already gained or changing their approach in hopes of bringing nonvoters back to the polls, surely it would be a rare leadership cadre that would take the path of high risk.
When the ruling elite has drifted as far from the voting public as they have in the USA, the role of minor parties is crucial. The only party that will resist the excesses of the elite, let alone embrace a program that may reverse the centralization of power in ever fewer hands, is one that faces certain defeat otherwise. The Republican Party draws its base of support from voters who are comfortable with hierarchy ; it is therefore unlikely to become the vehicle for such resistance. The Democratic Party absorbs the votes of people who want to create a more open political system; if that is the goal, it is therefore necessary either to wrest control of the Democratic Party from its current sponsors, or to destroy it and make way for a new party that will rise to that challenge. Therefore, I will cast my ballot for Rocky Anderson for president.