Buying Power

April 09, 2011

During the last election, I wrote a little bit about why I didn’t vote for a candidate. Several people close to me were aghast at my decision. I still stand by it.

Three years later, Obama is president and a new Congress has been elected with a Republican majority: a recipe of change according to Republicans. The large freshman class is a sign that the American People were not happy with the previous status quo. The irony of Obama’s campaign message of change is not lost, although it at least points out the fickle, fleeting personality of the voting public.

Now we’re 24 hours past a budget standoff with a draft compromise between the two parties. This after two short term Continuing Resolutions and an Executive Branch decision to back the UN with military force in Libya.

For the last few months, the Republicans have been flaunting the idea that the majority is not happy. That’s why they’re here, for a change.

It seems that we’re still not happy. The 2010 elections pointed to unhappiness and malaise directed at the political system itself, not at any one party. We’re not convinced that fixes can happen, so the voting see-saws between the parties, cycling through policy and philosophy and achieving nothing. What’s the point of new laws if they’ll simply be reversed by the incoming legislature, or won’t be upheld by the next administration?

The cycling has created a huge polar moment in the political system. Incoming elected officials stabilize the base on the far sides of the political spectrum and then gravitate towards the middle when elected. The odd part about this is that the (largely quiet) majority of America is close to the center. The base of the current political parties are vocal and extreme, and they are vocal precisely because they are so extremely opposed to whatever alternatives they see on the other side of the aisle.

It occurs to me that there is a huge opportunity here. We’ve operated with a two-party system for so long that it has become synonymous with democracy. But there’s no causality. In the closing address of his Presidency, George Washington warned of the destabilizing effect that political parties have on public discourse.

The time seems ripe for a third party, one closer to the center. In the current atmosphere of vitriol and political extremes, it would be easy to offer a working alternative that a lot of people could get on board with very quickly. In the age of the internet, proselytizing and igniting a large center base could be viral. The main missing ingredient so far has been money and persona.

This leads to two interesting ideas:

The Tea Party is a sort of attempt to carve out a third political party. They have in a very real way taken over a lot of the policy of the Republican Party. They’ve effectively pushed a huge base with a very real (and, in my opinion, very Constitutional) agenda. They have two enormous problems.

First, they’ve decided to operate within the two party system, thinking that this is so historically entrenched that they can’t possibly get beyond it. So instead of offering a real alternative to the political game being played, they instead have entered directly into the fray.

Their second problem is persona. When I think of the Tea Party, whether right or wrong, I think of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. This makes me incredibly sad. Neither are worthy of such a place in our collective political conscience, and they taint our taste for America. They aren’t the heroes of this age we so desperately need, they’re our antiheroes.

And this is the first idea. In the current trend of modern American political discourse, the loud and angry out-shout the quiet, curious, and contemplative a thousand to one. Whether because of monetization, advertising, or the right-now and pessimistic mentality of media, the sound byte rules the day. I want so desperately to find a politician today that can stand up to the figures of Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Lincoln or Jefferson. There are some damned smart politicians out there. But for all of the remarkable intelligence of Barney Frank, he still manages to get caught up shouting matches on CNN and Fox News. Maybe what I’m searching for just isn’t possible in a post-TV world. Certainly Obama is the closest anyone has ever gotten.

The idea of a third political party today brings up a second interesting idea. Is it possible to buy power in our current system? I don’t know near enough about the political party system, campaign fund-raising law, or voter registration to answer this question. I’d like to know more if anyone has some insights or links. But I have to believe that a quiet collective of billionaires could manage to place a large amount of funds at the easy disposal of some very likable candidates at regional and national levels and thus produce a large amount of influence on a widespread level. Would this be a bad thing? I don’t know. Billionaires already have enough money that they don’t really want for anything in the world, so their only motivation would be ideology or power. Power? Political power seems frivolous and harder to implement than other types of power they already have. So ideology seems the likely push. In which case, it would be largely centrist since that would mean they get to keep their power. But how would you keep it centrist? One good way would be to sit on both sides of center and pull like in a game of tug of war, keeping all of America largely in the middle where you can easily exert power, influence and keep your fortune. Which sounds exactly like the situation we have today, except instead of only a few billionaires, the ones pulling the ropes are the top 1% and large for-profit companies. We think.

Maybe that’s inevitable now. Maybe it’s not so bad. Most people have a way incorrect model of wealth and the economy. I’m not sure this will ever change. So for now, I think I’ll join the Coffee Party USA. From their website:

Yes, we are non-partisan, but being non-partisan does not mean we 
will not take positions.  It means that Coffee Party members will 
arrive at positions based on principles and facts; not based 
on party affiliation and ideology.

A laudable but difficult goal. One I hope we all try to embrace more.

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