Pay 2 Play and the Need for Small-Scale Democracy Forums like Neto
At Neto’s Equity Education Get-Together on April 25, we hosted a viewing and discussion of Pay 2 Play, a documentary by John Wellington Ennis that does a creditable job of tackling a difficult and complex subject: how wealth and political corruption currently works in the U.S.
Overall, many of us who attended thought the movie told a pretty good story about how perniciously Big Money has distorted politics and policies in the U.S. It also helps ordinary people who aren’t policy wonks understand how the Citizens United and McCutcheon Supreme Court decisions opened the floodgates for corporations and rich people to dominate policymaking in their favor.
It also revealed how the 800-pound gorilla business lobby, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) has systematically coopted the political process and literally written laws that favor monopolistic corporate interests (not to be confused with small business interests and well-functioning capitalism). ALEC’s fingerprints are all over environmental protection roll-backs, voter suppression laws, and other practices that capture political power for wealthy and undermine broader public interests.
Pay 2 Play also reinforces a point made by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in his book, The Price of Inequality, that wealthy interest groups use their money to dominate public discourse and shape public perception.
There is another way for moneyed interests to get what they want out of government: convince the 99 percent that they have shared interests. This strategy requires an impressive sleight of hand; in many respects the interests of the 1 percent and the 99 percent differ markedly.
Thus it comes as little surprise that many ordinary people—including people in the Tea Party, who should rightly be allies with Progressives in eliminating political corruption--vote for policies that undermine their own interests and well-being. The rich people and corporations that promote the narrow interests of the rich (which is not all rich people) can buy media time, pay clever spin doctors, and basically shout louder and longer than everyone else.
We begin to see how very easy it is for politicians on all sides of the spectrum to get sucked into corruption. Even those who denounce the problem (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, et al) are in a quandary. As things stand, without money, you cannot possibly gain office and be in a position to try to change things from within. But once you have touched this pitch, you are also blackened. It is a vicious cycle of corruption that is hard for politicians to break on their own without significant pressure from the general public.
Which brings me to another very good thing about Pay 2 Play: It not only lays out the problem; it tells an encouraging story of how it is possible for ordinary people like us to change things. Indeed, we are the only ones who can turn things around. Even Teddy Roosevelt needed the support of a broad swath of the American public in order to succeed in pushing his anti-corruption agenda.
The big failing of Pay 2 Play is this: despite its assertions to the contrary, the movie’s patently Progressive tone and rhetoric are likely to be a turn-off to people who think of themselves as centrist or conservative. It even bugged me (and most people describe me, using a label that doesn't quite fit, as liberal). This points to a major problem in our ability to address inequality and political corruption: political corruption and inequality is largely branded as a “Progressive” issue, when in fact, it is and should be a major concern of thoughtful people across the political spectrum. In Pay 2 Play, the people they interview, words they use, and even a solution they dwell on (street art) is preaching to the Progressive choir. This is not a bad thing in itself, but it limits its effectiveness in galvanizing people from all walks of life to come together around something that deeply affects us all.
This is not only unfortunate but unnecessary, because there are prominent, very smart conservative economic and political analysts who are also deeply worried about the impact of inequality on democracy. Among them are Stanford political economist Francis Fukuyama, a self-described neoconservative who was formerly with the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. And conservative political analyst Kevin Phillips, who wrote a very prescient book on inequality and political corruption called Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, published in 2002.
In Fukuyama’s most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay, he writes lucidly about the growing extent of political corruption in the U.S., driven by well-healed interest groups on the right and left that do not represent the interests of the American public as a whole. At local, state and federal levels, there are (usually) strictly enforced conflict-of-interest rules against outright bribery, direct pay-offs to voters, or nepotism. But these don't address the current problem. Fukuyama describes contemporary corruption as a more elusive and hard-to-solve problem of “reciprocal altruism,” the human tendency to do a good deed for someone with the expectation that they will someday repay you (like Vito Corleone in the opening scene of The Godfather).
Reciprocal altruism… is rampant in Washington D.C., and is the primary channel through which interest groups have succeeded in corrupting government. As legal scholar Lawrence Lessig points out, interest groups are able to influence members of Congress in perfectly legal ways simply by making donations and waiting for unspecified return favors. At other times it is the member of Congress who initiates the gift exchange, favoring an interest group in the expectation that he or she will be rewarded down the line with campaign contributions. Often the exchange does not involve money. A congressperson attending a conference in a fancy resort on, say, derivatives regulation, will hear presentations on why the banking industry does not need to be regulated without hearing credible alternative arguments. The politician will be captured in this case not by money (though there is plenty of that to go around), but intellectually, since he or she will have only positive associations with the interest group’s point of view.
… though no one will ever find a smoking gun linking bank campaign contributions to the votes of specific congressmen, it defies belief that the banking industry’s legions of lobbyists did not have a major impact in preventing the simpler solution of simply breaking up the big banks or subjecting them to stringent capital requirements.
…The interest groups that contend for the attention of Congress are… not collectively representative of the whole American people. They are representative of the best-organized and (what often amounts to the same thing) richly endowed part of American society. Thus bias is not a random one but tends to work against the interests of the unorganized, who are often poor, poorly educated, or otherwise marginalized.
Fukuyama points out that there is another big casualty in the polarization of interest group politics: government and civic forums for public deliberation about things that matter to ordinary people, and which encourage a meeting of the minds.
…There is a further problem with interest groups and the pluralist view that sees public interest as nothing more than the aggregation of individual private interests: they undermine the possibility of deliberation and the way that individual preferences are shaped by dialogue and communication. In both classical Athenian democracy and the New England town hall meetings celebrated by Tocqueville, citizens spoke directly to each other about the common interest of their community. It is easy to idealize these instances of small-scale democracy, or minimize the real differences that exist in large societies. But as any organizer of focus groups will tell you, people’s views on highly emotional subjects from immigration to abortion to drugs will change just thirty minutes into a face-to-face discussion with people of differing views, provided that they are given common information and group rules that enforce civility.
…legislators as representatives of the people’s will are supposed to act to ensure that policies reflect public purposes. But political parties have become hostage to powerful interest groups that collectively do not represent the American electorate. The hold of these groups is strong enough to block sensible public policies on issues from farm subsidies to bank regulation. They have turned the tax code into a confusing welter of privileges and made difficult any kind of impersonal public administration.
Which brings me back to the failing of Pay 2 Play and the kind of strident rhetoric that fuels divisions and keeps the average Joe or Josephine Citizen politically and economically weak. Every time we fall into an “us versus them” mentality, we are perpetuating and exacerbating inequality. It is not just Mitt Romney and his ilk who do this (if you recall his famous statement of the 47% of the American public who are “dependent” and consider themselves “victims”). Progressives also embrace attitudes and use language that reinforces divisiveness. (More about this in a future blog post.)
Here is how Gillian Tett, U.S. Managing Editor of The Financial Times put it when Congress was heading toward its “fiscal cliff” a couple of years ago:
Right now, issues like social cohesion are crucial for understanding what's going on [with the debt crisis]….[the] question of social cohesion and whether America has a way of allocating pain [is] even more pertinent. Social divisions are widening in America. Income inequality is growing. That may create even more tension going forward.
The core of Neto’s values and our Theory of Change is that social, economic, education or any form of equity begins with building social cohesion. What we are working to do is create forums where people from all backgrounds and beliefs—economic status, race, religion, political affiliation—come together to share views, deliberate, develop consensus about what kind of society we want to be, and take coordinated action toward common goals. Asking “what do we have in common?” is the first crucial step of this 1000-mile journey toward a more equitable society.