Publicly and/or transparently finance all elections, and put an end to lobbying and legal bribery.
As many an Occupy protestor has pointed out, 94% of the time, the candidate with more money wins. That’s not democracy. Touche, cardboard sign.
But in all seriousness, everyone but the mega-rich themselves pretty much agrees that money in politics is a problem. We may, depending on our respective political persuasions, disagree as to which corporations or unions are primarily responsible, but a general hatred of the influence of money serves as common ground. Citizens United, the disastrous Supreme Court decision that declares that corporations are people and money is speech, has further fueled the fire of public outrage—though, let’s be clear, not nearly enough of it.
Let’s take these premises one by one: first, that a corporation is a person. Now, this subject has been exhaustively ridiculed, but humor me while I jettison some pent-up rage. Corporations currently have a best-of-both worlds scenario wherein they are allocated many of the rights of people, but almost none of the corresponding responsibilities. People can’t be bought and sold, evade their taxes with offshore accounts, take seven trillion dollars from the Fed, or dump oil or noxious chemicals into the water and air we all share (but then, they don’t drink or breathe, either). Corporations don’t have any of the interests of real people: they don’t need healthcare, an education, or a clean and safe place in which to live and raise families. They have no inherent interest in democracy or the welfare of the people of this country, though their public relations departments may claim otherwise. That reminds me: people don’t have public relations departments. Fuck, forget this bullshit. Corporations aren’t people, and I don’t need to explain why. Explaining it only dignifies what is in reality an entirely contrived debate. To hell with this.
On the other hand, the question of whether money is speech is slightly less ridiculous. I mean, people—real people—can donate money to political campaigns or charities as a means of making themselves heard. But for fuck’s sake, there’s such a thing as scale. If you’re mingling at a party talking with the other guests and some douchebag gets up on the table with a bullhorn to announce that for just three easy payments of $19.95 you can have a blanket with sleeves, you can’t rightly say that everyone’s right to speech is equally protected. Real speech is something with which we are all equally possessed; we don’t have to earn or save speech, and no one has more speech than anyone else (excepting varying degrees of usage at one’s own discretion). Among ordinary people, an idea usually gains headway when others agree with it and voice it themselves. One jackass doing the same thing with an assload of money is analogous to the bullhorn: bullshit. There’s a big difference between being heard because of the merits of your ideas and being heard because of sheer volume. When we’re with other real people, we don’t tolerate one person shouting over everyone else. The wealth gap in this country is far too wide to just shrug and say, “Well, everyone can donate as much as he or she likes.” Fuck you.
But let’s say you don’t buy that argument. Maybe you’re one of these pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps dicks who thinks anyone who can’t donate tens of millions of dollars in speech just hasn’t worked hard enough and whose opinion is therefore less important. I’ve been considering a twist on the money=speech argument for some time now that Jeff Greenfield recently put quite brilliantly, and that is this: with ordinary speech—you know, the kind that comes out of your mouth or in writing—we are allowed to tell people “Vote for Bernie Sanders!” If money is speech, can’t corporations or other people just give money directly to the voters to ‘tell’ them how they ought to vote? Isn’t that the logical conclusion? If not, how? And if so, am I the only one who finds that intrinsically, viscerally, motherfucking wrong?
Even without Citizens United, it’s not like campaign finances were particularly fair and transparent to begin with. It’s no secret that big-monied special interests have been buying our politicians for as far back as our cultural memory extends. We all know how it works: I, Bob Executive, give you, Sellout McMoneywhore, a fuck ton of money to get you elected (we’ve already established that with more money, you win 94% of the time). Congratulations! You are now an elected representative. But whom do you represent? The people who elected you? Not if you want money for your reelection campaign, you don’t! I got you elected, so now I own you, and you will advance my personal and/or business interests with your legislative/judiciary/executive power. Sure, your constituents will also give you money, but I’ll give you more, because I have more and can spare more. Whom do you serve?!
If people were smart, they could see right through this. If. And that’s assuming that we know whom is doing what. The advent of the SuperPAC and the 501(c)(4) make it pretty difficult for even a clever person to keep track of the assholes who own our government. Again, if money is speech, and the point of speech is to be heard, why are 501(c)(4)s allowed to keep all their shit secret? And what’s the point of the transparent SuperPAC when a 501(c)(4) can donate anonymous money to them? As Stephen Colbert put it, “What’s the difference between this and money laundering?” What indeed, sir.
Anyway, you know what the problem is, so let’s move on to the solution. I’m rather flexible on this one. Public financing—campaign funding coming from the government budget—is an excellent option that is already used in a whole bunch of civilized countries. To be honest, though, I don’t think people (real people) should be barred from making donations. We should encourage people to be involved in civic life, and it feels good to give money to a person or a cause in which you believe. There should, however, be a firm, non-manipulatable, non-fuck-up-able limit, and I think it ought to be a function of the minimum wage—for instance, an individual may make one donation in any given race of no more than ten times the current federal minimum wage. And in the case of state or local elections, individuals can only donate where they have standing (i.e., I can only donate to a Vermont Senate race).
And though this doesn’t necessarily fall into the ‘easy’ part of the ‘Five Easy Ways,’ I’m going to address it anyway: lobbying needs to be made illegal, because regardless of what we do to change campaign financing, bribery will still take place under the table. I’m not entirely sure what we can do about it, but for a start, I think that politicians’ finances need to be made public. And I mean really public. Like, on the internet public. That may seem drastic, but they’ve brought it upon themselves by systematically betraying the public trust for decades. Moreover, if they are caught taking illegal money, we won’t do any of this friendly censure or ethics violation shit: go to jail, go directly to jail. This would also apply to non-monetary ‘gifts’ like vacations or jets or whatever the fuck. I’m being as serious as blood in your stool: until politicians cannot be bought, we will never have democracy.
I apologize for being a little vague here; the problem is fairly simple, which is why it’s on this list, but the solution may prove to be something of a challenge. That isn’t to say we aren’t up to the task, because we most certainly are. All I mean to say is that exterminating a pest whose money-grubbing tendrils have reached into every corner of our government will take stringent, well thought-out reforms, and eternal vigilance. If I could count on the latter, the former would not be so critical.
Sadly, a people so hopelessly content and stupefied as the American public cannot, I fear, be trusted with such an urgent task. Of course, there will always be dutiful few who take it upon themselves to stay involved with this sort of thing, but they need to be given the proper tools for the job. At the moment, we have little more than leaked memos and moral indignation to share with an unsympathetic, equally bought-out press; if we managed to change the system just a bit, even ordinary citizens could take their representatives to task for corruption. Making politicians accountable to their constituents—every day, not just on election day—is imperative. The people of this country have forgotten that their representatives are their employees, and in any other organization, employees who cheat, steal, or neglect their duties are terminated. As it stands, none of these things are against the rules; once we change that, we will be halfway there.