Readings — From the October 2010 issue

Speak, Money

From The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism (HarperCollins). Hodge is the former editor 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 superrich (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.

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