Monday, January 18, 2016

Structural Change to End Corruption

I have a hard time using the word "corruption" to describe the situation in Washington. I don't think it's as simple as literal bribes or patronage jobs. But I stopped myself from hedging in the headline because "the appearance of corruption" or "corrupting influences" doesn't go far enough. What we have is corruption, even though it's not the old-fashioned kind.

A lot of people know that Washington is essentially corrupt and want to do something about it. Clearly, Bernie Sanders's success so far is a combination of his message and the fact that people want to shake up business as usual in Washington. This is the same feeling that motivates voters who think they like Trump.

I don't blame people for wanting to shake up Washington, but it's not something that can be fixed by one individual, like Trump, who thinks his personality can solve all problems. If a single person could do it, Obama would have, but there are many interlocking forces that keep things going the way they are.

It's a structural problem, but since we have to elect a single human being to lead the change, that person needs to have an analysis of what structural change is needed, and a plan for action that doesn't rely on Washington to heal itself. Hillary Clinton not only doesn't have that analysis, she denies the problem even exists. Obama, I think, understands it, but for whatever reason, didn't approach it as an organizing challenge.

Sanders knows what the problem is, and calls for the type of grassroots movement it will take to change it. He may not make the argument quite as clearly as Larry Lessig, say, but I'm hopeful Sanders would work with people like Lessig and Zephyr Teachout. Until Congress is beholden to the many people who elect them instead of the few people who fund them, there will be no significant change no matter who is president.

The minimum wage is one clear example where the opinions of the donor class diverge strongly from the general public, yet whose opinion is valued in Congress? This pattern is mirrored on climate change, the social safety net, and a range of other issues.

We need major campaign finance reform, including public financing. We need an end not only to Citizens United, which proclaimed corporations to be people: We need an end to Buckley v. Valeo, which decided that money was speech. Candidates need to start from as even a playing field as we can make: Allowing millionaires or billionaires to self-fund their campaigns needs to end.

These changes may require constitutional amendments, since the Supreme Court seems committed to the misguided path it has chosen. But the corrupting influence of big money must be stopped if we're serious about making sure our country adopts the policies we need for economic justice and a livable planet.

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