From the October 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
As we prepare yet another round of offerings to the demigods of America’s political religion, we would do well to remind ourselves of what our electoral votives truly signify. Ideally, our ballots purport to be expressions of political will, which we hope and pray will be translated into legislative and executive action by our pretended representatives. Through hard and painful struggles, against daunting odds, our forebears and elders fought so long for voting rights—for unpropertied men, for women, for blacks—that we may perhaps be forgiven the error of thinking that casting a ballot is the perfection of civic virtue, the ultimate and sovereign duty of the citizen ruler. Alas, the agony of citizenship is never ending; voting is the beginning of civic virtue, not its end, and as suffrage has expanded so has its value been steadily debased. The locus of real power is elsewhere. Wealth and property qualifications, poll taxes, and the like are very far from being historical curiosities; they have simply mutated. Campaign contributions and other forms of political spending have assumed that old exclusionary function, and only those who can afford to pay are able truly to manifest their political will. Voters still “matter,” of course, but only as raw material to be shaped by the actual form of political influence—money—which molds the body politic by realizing itself in the ductile mass of common voters.
The Atlantic republican tradition that informed the minds of our founding generation had a name for this state of affairs: corruption, a term that suggested far more than mere bribery. Corruption, in its institutional sense, denotes the degeneration of republican forms of government into despotism, and typically comes about when the private ends of a narrow faction of citizens succeed in capturing the engines of government; its prevention was one of the primary concerns of the framers of the Constitution. Citizens, like states, are susceptible to the disease of corruption, and in the classical republican understanding a corrupt citizenry is one that has allowed its private and narrow personal interests to trump those of the general public. The radicalism of the American revision of republicanism consisted in founding a state on the premise that the public interest might be served by the assertion of private interest, and that a large, well-regulated republic might withstand corruption by absorbing the manifold competing interests of a large and diverse population. most republicans throughout history have viewed history through a tragic lens; the life cycle of republics—their degeneration into anarchy, oligarchy, or monarchy—was thought to be inescapable. James Madison, in particular, sought to escape that tragic cycle. His principles were sound, his institutionaL design was brilliant, and yet he failed. Perhaps the time has come for us to reckon with that tragedy.
The corruption of our institutions manifests itself in a variety of ways, but in none so dramatic as the imbalance of national wealth, which in recent decades has shattered records formerly set in the late 1920s. Although it is often claimed that the gap between rich and poor began decisively to widen in the late 1970s, as if to absolve Ronald Reagan for what his followers no doubt count as his primary accomplishment, the total share of income of the wealthiest 10 percent of American families was well within the postwar norm until 1982, when Reagan’s policies began a massive, decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich. Under Bill Clinton, who shamelessly appropriated the Reaganite agenda, the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever growing share of national income. The trend continued under George W. Bush, and by 2007 the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans (families earning more than $109,630) were taking in 50 percent of the national income. In 1980 the top 1 percent of Americans received 10 percent of the national income; by 2007 the super-rich (those with income above $398,900) had increased their share to 23.5 percent. The average increase in real income for the bottom 99 percent of American families between 1973 and 2006 was a mere 8.5 percent, whereas the richest 1 percent saw a 190 percent rise in real income.
Such a distortion of the nation’s balance of wealth did not come about by accident; it was the result of a long series of policy decisions—about industry and trade, taxation and military spending, by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in concrete and steel buildings—that were bought and paid for by the less than 1 percent of Americans who participate in our capitalist democracy by contributing at least $200 to political campaigns. Gross inequalities in wealth not only create a perverse feedback loop in which the interests of the wealthy and the centers of power in government recede ever further from those of the general public; such inequality also distorts the political psychology of voters. Some of the best recent empirical work in political science has shown that most Americans attempt to vote in accordance with their economic interests, rather than by the dictates of ephemeral antagonisms over God, gays, or guns. Unfortunately, economic improvements for the vast majority of Americans over the past three decades have been so marginal that they are easily overshadowed by cynical manipulations of the political business cycle, the timing of economic expansions with election years, and by the strange fact that lower-income voters are more sensitive, in terms of voting behavior, to income growth among the wealthy than they are to their own economic well-being.
Since the early 1980s, the Democratic party has largely abandoned its commitment to policies that serve the material interests of most Americans and has joined the Republican party in a shameless competition for the patronage of large corporations and the superrich. Add to these complexities the proven power of campaign spending to influence election outcomes (Larry Bartels has calculated that each additional dollar spent per voter by a candidate increases the probability of a given undecided voter’s support by almost four percentage points), and it is easy to see that the average American has no hope of safeguarding his interests, whether they pertain to life, liberty, or happiness. We cast our empty ballots for one party; then, disgusted with the inevitable betrayals, pray for a redeemer from the opposing party to rescue us from politics and history, only to repeat the cycle once again. meanwhile, most of our citizens are fully absorbed in their personal affairs, oblivious and largely ignorant of the details of politics and governance. We are so very far from the classical republican ideal of ruling and being ruled, of exercising political agency and participating in the life of our commonwealth, that, incapable of pursuing even narrow self-interest effectively, we instead offer ourselves up as impotent, obsequious subjects, the unresisting tools of interests we scarcely comprehend.
Occasionally, however, the political class expresses itself in unmistakable terms, unintentionally disclosing the true nature of our political economy. In January, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court held that restrictions on independent corporate expenditures in political campaigns are unconstitutional infringements on the freedom of speech. Much of the judicial literature on the subject, including Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United, simply substitutes the words “speech” and “speak” for words such as “spend” and “buy.” Corporations, according to the court’s majority faction, are speakers, persons who have constitutional rights. When they spend, they speak. Kennedy admits that favoritism and influence can result from campaign spending but he asserts that far from being objectionable or avoidable, favoritism and influence are the essence of representative politics, that it is right and natural that a representative should favor certain “voters and contributors.” Indeed, he continues, “it is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness.” With admirable frankness if less than impeccable logic, Kennedy equates not only the act of spending money with speech but also the act of making a campaign contribution with voting. The idea of corruption resulting from the quid pro quo of contribution for legislation troubles him not at all. “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore,” he repeats, as if a lie may be converted into truth by mere reiteration, “will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”
If there were any doubts about what sort of government we live under, Kennedy’s opinion should lay them to rest. Indeed, civic virtue has now completed its centuries-long metamorphosis from the republican ideal of the free citizen-ruler to the degraded economic norm of the consumer buying on credit; virtue for us is no more than a spotless credit rating. Thus the terror of a credit crisis; it strikes at the very foundation of public personality. The more abstract and financialized our commercial expressions, the more virtuous they become; corporations, fictional beings of pure commerce, predicated on our collective fantasies, are now the highest expression of political art. Corporations are evolving under judicial legislation into the perfect, immortal citizen-rulers of our capitalist democracy, a virtual republic in which all political speech is advertising and all real citizens are commercial fictions.
It is a curious metaphysical doctrine, is it not? Corporations are artificial beings, theoretically immortal, which come into existence by means of state charters and reproduce like amoebas by splitting into subsidiaries; midwifed by lawyers, they combine in bizarre mating rituals called mergers; they are owned, like slaves, by shareholders who buy and sell their chattel daily; and they possess constitutional rights. Oddly, however, our corporate citizens are denied the right to vote. By what logic can a corporation be granted personhood and the constitutional right to speak money, yet be denied the constitutional right to vote? How can our system permit these corporate persons to be enslaved through ownership? Does not the force of all logic and morality require us either to deny the personhood of corporations, or to grant them the right to vote and to free them from slavery? If we insist on maintaining their status as persons, at least let us give ourselves the power, if they commit serious crimes against property, to put corporations to death.
Given the weird First Amendment metaphysics to which a majority of our Supreme Court justices subscribe, it is obvious that mere campaign-finance reform is a dead letter, notwithstanding President Obama’s pious noises following the Citizens United verdict. It seems only a matter of time and litigation before all limits to political expenditures are erased in the name of free speech; the radical doctrines of the Roberts Court admit no foreseeable limit. Even so, the Republican Party and its ideological lawyers in the Federalist Society may yet have reason to regret their determined advocacy on behalf of the money-equals-speech heresy. Obama outspent McCain two-to-one during the last election, and there is no reason to believe that all or even most corporate spending will ultimately be channeled to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Palin. On the contrary, Democrats are likely to benefit as much or more than the GOP even after Kennedy, Scalia, et al. finally get their chance to liberate flesh-and-blood persons, especially that wise and judicious 1 percent who wish to make their money speak, from the fetters of financial censorship and disenfranchisement. As Obama’s purported reforms, in health care no less than in finance, have demonstrated, the Democrats have made certain that their contributors will secure enviable returns on their political investments.
Citizens United is not the cause of our troubles; it merely highlights the essential character of our system, and for that we should be grateful. Nevertheless, given this judicial perversion of the First Amendment, our only sure remedy is constitutional. The Democratic party’s lamentable DISCLOSE Act, which this summer failed to muster sixty votes in the Senate, would do nothing, if passed, to curb the flow of cash and the further disenfranchisement of the vast majority of the citizenry. It is no great burden for large corporations and wealthy individuals to hire more clerks to file additional disclosure forms, and under current law we already know a great deal about who buys and sells our commodified rulers and their derivative legislation. Far more robust is the Fair Elections Now Act, which would establish a system of public financing of elections, yet even if it survived a Supreme Court review, such a law would fail to contain the disproportionate power of the wealthy. In an ideal system of public campaign financing, in which all political speech has been equalized by law, in which political advertising is banned and persuasion stripped of its commercial aspect—the corporate businessman and the millionaire (not to mention the billionaire) would still stand taller than the common citizen. In fact, as the political theorist John P. McCormick has argued, the wealthy are likely to dominate any political regime that chooses its magistrates and lawmakers solely by means of election.
Republican theorists have traditionally recognized the centrality of economic class in politics and in the design of stable republican institutions. past republics, in antiquity and in the Renaissance, were particularly concerned to contain the power of the rich and prevent them from dominating the institutions of government. Historically, it has been the insolence and dominating ambition of the wealthy that has led to the decline of great republics, not the revolutionary or leveling fervor of the lower classes, who mostly wish to be left to their own devices. The Roman tribunes vigorously defended the rights and privileges of the plebs against the depredations of the rich, and the tribunate had the power to veto actions proposed by the Senate and to accuse patricians of political crimes. Florentine constitutional thinkers such as Niccolò machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini gave much thought to such questions, and a variety of devices—including lotteries and class quotas, often in combination with election—were considered and employed. No doubt these classical republicans would consider our Constitution’s silence on the matter of class a debilitating and perhaps fatal defect.
It is perfectly legitimate for the rich to pursue their own interests; what is not legitimate is the current exclusion of all other interests from the reason of state. A constitutional amendment establishing public financing of elections would be an obvious and reasonable first step toward correcting this imbalance, as would an amendment stripping corporations of their rights as persons. Even better would be a convention, in which we might attempt to introduce new constitutional devices designed to more equitably distribute access to political deliberation. Admittedly, however, the prospects for a constitutional remedy appear dim. Is it possible that the majority of Americans whose interests are not being served have no political will? As James Madison asked long ago: Are we utterly without civic virtue? If so, then we are truly wretched. “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”
Although we have always benefited from the activities of public-spirited individuals, even men and women of great wealth who recognize that greed as a principle of public conduct often leads to perverse outcomes, the United States Constitution was emphatically not founded on the assumption that either citizens or magistrates could be trusted to act selflessly. If my argument can be taken as a call to republican virtue, it is only so within the modern realist framework devised by Madison and his colleagues in 1787, according to whom government is a response to humanity’s inherent wickedness. Men are not angels, Obama notwithstanding. A properly American call to republican virtue is not a utopian exhortation that our citizens cast aside their private and selfish interests and embark on a course of austere political action, with their eyes fixed on some transcendent public good apart from their own.
No, what is required is that Americans take a stand on behalf of their selfish material interests and against those of the monopolies and transnational corporations that have captured our institutions of government. The paradoxical character of our popular corruption is that the people have become slothfully selfless, too absorbed by their ephemeral entertainments and petty cultural disputes to assert their self-interest against the plunderers who rule them.
Surely, however, the American people have not become so servile that they will forever submit to the rule of 1 percent. Surely we are capable of recognizing that the perverse corporate regime that has arisen in our country is a usurpation of popular government. Our Constitution unquestionably recognizes the right of a people to alter its mode of government; we have done so twenty-seven times. We may do so again. We may throw off these bonds and provide new guards for our future security.