Democratic Death Spirals

by Benjamin Studebaker

At this point, a very large number of people recognize that there are serious structural problems with the American political system, but most of these people still support American democracy in the abstract. Today I’d like to argue that this position is inconsistent, that it ignores the implications of recognizing the structural nature of the problems in the first place.

So, there are two broad categories of problems that people see with our political system:

  1. Ignorance–politicians are stupid, uninformed, scientifically illiterate, or otherwise incompetent policy and decision makers.
  2. Malevolence–politicians are corrupt lying bastards who are in bed with unions/lobbyists/corporations/take your pick.

Often times, critics will argue over which of these is the larger problem.  Those who think that malevolence is the bigger problem come in two varieties:

  1. Internal Reformers–those who think that we need campaign finance reform or other legal restrictions on the role of money in politics. Some support term limits on the belief that the longer a politician is in office the more likely he is to become corrupt.
  2. System Critics–those who think that representative democracy is inherently prone to corruption and that we should instead create a direct democratic system so the people can make policy themselves without intermediaries.

Those who think that ignorance is the bigger problem also come in two varieties:

  1. Internal Reformers–those who think that we need to educate voters about politics, raise political awareness, and get people interested and involved.
  2. System Critics–those who think that voters generally are politically disinclined or otherwise unwilling or incapable of achieving the education level internal reformers want. Instead, they propose less democratic theories of government.

I’m a system critic who thinks ignorance is the larger problem. However, my aim today is not to partake in the ignorance/malevolence debate. Instead, I want to argue that regardless of whether or not you think malevolence or corruption is the larger problem, you ought to be a system critic because of something I call the “democratic death spiral”.

It is too often forgotten that every person who is presently in elected office of any kind in the United States is a status quo beneficiary. These people win because of the way our political system is presently constructed. The people who didn’t win lost because they didn’t get in bed with financial interests and/or were mistakenly passed over by a serially ignorant voting population. For this reason, it is against the private interest of every current elected official to participate in internal reforms of any kind. Indeed, if our current politicians recognize that they benefited from political money or misguided voting, they have an incentive to ensure that there is yet more avenues available for money to flow and that the public is even less equipped to vote well. This is true whether they run for re-election or not–either they want to win again themselves or they want to ensure that people win who are like themselves.

This idea displays well visually. First, malevolence:

Democratic Death Spiral Corruption

Now, ignorance:

Democratic Death Spiral Incompetence

Are there any noble politicians that act against the status quo and bite the hand that feeds them? Proponents of the malevolence view might point to the McCain-Feingold Act (MFA) as evidence that there’s hope yet for the country to escape the death spiral without remaking its political structures from scratch. The MFA was passed in 2002 by 240-189 majority in the house and a 60-40 majority in the senate.  It prohibited corporations and unions from buying “electioneering ads” (those ads that mentioned a candidate by name) within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. It also placed a variety of limits on individual and organization contributions to campaigns. This was a relatively modest reform–it was circumvented frequently by 527 organizations like Swift Boat Veterans for truth during the 2004 election, as these organizations were not associated with campaigns nor were they defined as corporate or union entities.

Even so, the Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed and confirmed by elected officials, gutted the law:

  • In 2007, the court ruled 5-4 that unless ads expressly advocated for the support or defeat of a candidate, MFA’s electioneering provision did not apply.
  • In 2008, the court ruled 5 in favor and 4 partially in favor and partially in dissent that the law’s attempt to balance differences in the use of personal wealth to finance campaigns was unconstitutional.
  • In 2010, the court made the famous Citizens United ruling in which it ruled 5-4 that corporations and unions are “associations of citizens” with free speech rights. This rendered the MCA largely impotent.
  • Later in 2010, the court of appeals ruled 9-0 to remove all individual and corporate funding restrictions provided donations were being made to “super PACs”, which remain formally disconnected from any political party or campaign.

The end result of the MFA is that people and organizations wishing to use money to influence politics now have full confidence that the courts believe they have a right to do so. Pre-MFA, these individuals and groups were to some degree curtailed by fear that campaign finance reform would be passed. Now that they know that campaign finance reform is believed by the courts to be unconstitutional, they have no grounds for fear. Indeed, super PACs now exist expressly for the purpose of facilitating spending of that kind, so money’s role in politics is now larger and more thoroughly legitimated.

I can think of no other instance in recent American history in which either the role of money or the incompetence of politicians and voters was actively and successfully challenged by the legislature, and even this instance left us worse off in the end.

Those who think that internal reform of these problems is still possible need to explain how they think these reforms are going to happen. We now have a legislature that is more allergic to passing comprehensive legislation than at any time in our post-war history. Even in comparison with the political climate of the MFA in 2002, a mere 13 years ago, things are now much worse:

What substantive reasons do we have to believe that this is going to turn around? None. Our politicians are corrupt and/or incompetent for structural reasons, and only by changing the fundamental structure can we eliminate those reasons. Internal reform is just not going to happen. Its success presupposes the resolution of the very problems it is supposed to fix.