That big money has too much control over our political system is one of the few political statements that almost all (85%-90%) Americans agree with. Most progressives I know think Big Money is pretty much the root of all evil in politics, or at least the largest single impediment to solving our national problems. Few conservatives I know go quite this far, but polls show a majority of conservatives and Republicans agree with the general proposition that regular people are priced out of the system.
We last discussed campaign finance reform in 2015, although we do related issues periodically, like corporations’ free speech rights in 2014. For this one, I thought we could sharpen our understanding of the (alleged) problem a bit. How did big money get to be the lifeblood of politics at almost all levels of government? What’s the evidence that Big Money really is our political system’s worst problem (as opposed to other factors, see below)? And, what might be done about big money’s dominance given the GOP’s almost total dominance of government these days and its almost complete opposition to any reforms progressives would support?
I will do some kind of informative, non-polemical opening to set the stage for discussion then open things up. Here are some readings and some more-detailed-than-usual discussion questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Big Money’s rise: Trends and amounts, who spends and on what and why do they do it?
- Regulations’ failures: Deregulation of campaign finance and lobbying rules. Citizens United et al. Rising economic inequality reinforcing political inequality. Over-regulation of economy led big biz to fight back? Recent state/local govts trying to reign money in.
- Harms: In elections vs in between elections. At which levels of govt? Visible vs. invisible harms. Crowding out the public interest vs. actively opposing it?
- Benefits: Are there any benefits to so much money in politics?
- Dogs that don’t bark: What things don’t happen due to big money’s influence that would or should happen?
- Other culprits: Ideological and partisan polarization, voter apathy/ignorance, changing news media/social media effects, candidate quality, etc. à Is big money really more important than all of these factors?
- Solutions: What fixes might be constitutional, possible given total GOP opposition at all levels, and effective?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (many, some long – pick and choose)
- Overall summaries of problem:
- Corporate lobbying is the real problem. Recommended.
- California: In CA its the Democrats that dominate the money.
- More facts and figures:
- [Update Sunday]: Politics is NOT all about the money, this liberal argues. Recommended.
- Conservative POV: All of this is highly misleading, part 1 and part 2. Convincing?
NEXT WEEK: What is “fair trade?” Do we need it?
I timed this topic in the expectation that the Republican Congress would have completed Obamacare repeal and be nearing completion of its first budget, with yet more large tax and spending cuts. Like everybody else I overestimated their competence. President Trump just announced that repeal is dead and it’s time to move on to…more tax cuts (aka tax reform.) Since by law the first major step in preparing the FY2018 federal budget must be completed by April 1 and the FY2018 budget is not even close to finished yet, now would be a good time for both the GOP and CivCon to focus on taxes and spending.
Radically altering who bears the burden of paying for the American government has been the GOP’s raison d’etre for 20+ years. Obamacare repeal itself would have been a big tax cut on the wealthy and a big cut in subsidies for low-income Americans. It also would have opened up room in the budget for the really huge tax cuts they were planning as the real centerpiece of GOP governance. (I will explain how on Monday, or just see the link below.) I guess creating such room is wasn’t worth walking the plank of taking away millions of people’s health insurance.
Anyway, even without all of this drama, a number of considerations would complicate our discussion of tax fairness. There is more than one way of defining what’s equitable, for instance. Beyond fairness, Public Finance 101 says that a good public finance system should have other features, like be as “efficient” as possible (minimally distorting to the private economy). It should be sustainable and stable, simple,; and politically acceptable. Oh, and no discussion of the costs of government makes any sense if it ignores the benefits of government. As I have mentioned 8 million times, informed citizens must have a rough idea of what and who our taxes are spent on.
For links, I’ll try something a little different this week. This post will stay at the top of the website all week. It has the usual meeting discussion questions and a few short, useful introductory articles.
But, below it I will do 2-3 short posts. Each one will have one or two simple charts that illustrate something important about how high the tax burden is in the United States and who bears it. The idea is we need to know what is before we meet to debate what should be.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Tax level/burden: What is the level and distribution of the tax burden now? Federal v. state/local taxes. Which types of taxes (income, corporate, payroll, etc.) cost the most? Who pays which taxes?
- Spending: Biggest programs and who benefits? Biggest misconceptions?
- Loopholes like the mortgage interest deduction are equivalent to spending. How are these “reverse tax burdens” distributed?
- Fairness: Ways of defining it + how should it be defined?
- Short run: How and for whom does GOP plan to change tax burden?
- Long run: How should/will burden be shared?
- What changes to tax fairness would Americans accept?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Principles: The 5 principles of a good tax system = Equity, adequacy, simplicity, exportability, and neutrality. Very short and recommended.
- Public opinion on taxes/spending is plain nuts:
- ACA repeal: Why GOP must repeal Obamacare’s taxes to make room for future tax cuts.
NEXT WEEK: Which moral standards should we use for judging historical figures?
Leonardo had a good question last week. Is Monday’s topic on resisting Trump about how big D Democrats or small d democrats should do it? I kind of envisioned a “where to now” discussion of issues facing the Democratic Party. CivCon usually avoid partisan strategy topics, since cable news supplies plenty of it. But, I thought this one was too important to avoid.
Now Leo, I’m not so sure we should limit the scope. It’s not just Democrats anymore that peer out from the wreckage of Trump’s first month and see a genuine threat to our constitutional democracy. Maybe our topic – and Dems’ strategy in general – should be to focus on finding ways to rally all of the other small d Republicans and independents American institutions to stand together to restore a functioning govt and oppose Trump’s movements towards strongman rule. Even if you disagree with this characterization of our new President and worry that any effort to unite elites against him would itself endanger democracy, Democrats have pretty much united around a strategy of total resistance to Trump.
For CivCon, I think that leaves us with three big questions to mull over at this meeting. (Four, if you want to debate whether Trump really poses an existential threat to our democracy). First, who and what exactly should we be resisting; everything Trump says/does or just the damages democracy/checks ‘n balances stuff? If Democrat self-limit this way, will they find any allies in the GOP and in other institutions, like the Media, the courts and the bureaucracy? Would it be worth the costs?
Second, does any bigger-than-usual opposition extend to congressional Republicans and their entire agenda? Progressives think some of them endanger our democracy all by themselves by tilting the electoral system towards permanent one party rule: Restricting voting rights, removing all remaining restrictions on campaign finance, crippling labor unions, and welcoming authoritarian White nationalists into the fold. Maybe this is overblown. Yet, Democrats bitterly oppose it all, as well as GOP plans to transform practically every area of national policy, like taxes, immigration, health care, the social safety net, and education.
Third , how specifically can resistance be implemented and maintained? Where’s the plan, the decision makers, the priorities, the resources, etc.? A large-scale resistance has sprung up quickly. How can it be used to maximum benefit in the months and years ahead? How can it translate into a revived Democratic Party?
My expertise is in federal-level policy and institutions, not activism. So, I will open our meeting with a few quick comments on where the opportunities will come in the near future (budget process, nominations, special elections, etc.) to stop or dilute the Trump/Republican agenda. Then, in discussion I hope to learn from our more activist-type members what they think The Plan is, and from our more conservative members.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
- Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
- Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
- Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
- What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
- Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
- Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
- Pro-Trump/conservatives: How should your leaders respond to Dem “resistance” and how should you defend him/GOP?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Is there hope for Democrats?
- Yes, because Trump is so unpopular and can be made more unpopular.
- Yes, because 2020 is the election that really matters and Dems are likely to win it. Recommended
- Why did trump win? An honest assessment of Dems’ mistakes. Recommended.
- A basic, 10-step strategy. Recommended.
- Resisting autocracy:
- The 25th Amendment option, explained.
- GOP: How to resist the GOP agenda since fighting Trump is not enough.
- Maybe stop calling it a “resistance.”
Republican/conservative POVs –
- The GOP Congress should do what it was elected to do – without overreaching. Recommended.
- Democrats should oppose within normal limits but not “resist.” Opposition should be inclusive not further divide us.
NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?
How can we possibly predict what kind of president Donald Trump will be? He may not know. His inaugural address did prove one thing that no one should still have been doubting: Trump meant everything he said on the campaign trail. He wants to be a transformative president or at least to be seen as one. It was not performance art or reality TV. It was him all along.
Beyond that, though, divining his main priorities is tricky. Supposedly, VP Pence and others have a large list of specific to-dos for the President to accomplish on Day 1, by Day 100, and beyond. But, they are being very secretive about the details. Partly that’s to build the suspense and drama. But I think it’s mainly by design. In the next month expect to see a blitzkrieg of executive orders and legislation. The showy, popular ones will suck up all of the media attention and shield the many highly unpopular decisions from public scrutiny. (But not from Civilized Conversation’s scrutiny.)
Other factors conspire to make it even harder to guess what Trump really wants. He is such a bizarre character: Mercurial, narcissistic, quick to lie. He has no idea what government does or how it’s organized or functions. His Administration barely exists yet and the few appointments he has made add up to no coherent governing strategy. It’s tempting to look at how Trump will govern as an exercise in abnormal psychology.
But, that would be a big mistake, IMO. He’s the president now. He has (or will have) an entire Administration and a GOP Congress. I think if we look at the many available clues, we can get a pretty good idea of what the new president’s main policy priorities will be and what his governing style will look like. Possibilities include:
- Chaos: Trump keeps acting like he’s been acting and we have no president for all practical purposes. The congressional GOP runs the government.
- Conventional: Trump leads, but helps the Republican Congress implement almost its entire long-dreamt-of policy agenda. Trump takes the credit/blame. Despite the inaugural address, this is the odds-on favorite to me.
- Hyper-Nationalism / White Nationalism: Something brand new: Trump remakes the GOP in his image and pursues a true right-wing populist agenda. Some mix of genuine help for working people at home (except for internal “enemies”) and hyper-nationalism abroad (aimed at external – mainly Islamic and Chinese – enemies).
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think talking about broad-brush priorities is a good place to start with any new administration, even this one. What does President Trump really want to accomplish, in terms of both policy and politics, and whose agenda will it be?
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Trump: During and since the campaign, what did he promise re a “vision” for America, for its government, and for himself as its leader?
- Congress: What are the GOP’s top priorities? Will they really pursue a radical downsizing of govt?
- Public: Which promises do Trump supporters most care about?
- Differences: How will big differences between 1, 2, 3 be resolved? Whose priorities will prevail?
- Personnel: Clues based on cabinet/sub-cabinet appointments.
- Personal: Trump’s authoritarian personality, impulsive nature, belief in his own genius? à Corrupt influences: The role in setting priorities of Trump family members, biz interests, cronies, Putin, etc.
- Top 5: Okay, what’s your guess on Trump Administration’s top priorities?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
What type of president will Trump be?-
- Three paths a Trump Administration could take. Recommended.
- Four leaders to model: Trump will be either Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Berlusconi, or (least likely), Mussolini. Recommended.
- The CEO President: Trump lets Pence handle most domestic policy and Flynn foreign policy.
- Government by gimmick?
Trump’s policy agenda –
- Plutocracy, not populism: Trump’s agenda = GOP’s agenda of upper-bracket tax cuts, deregulation, privatization. Recommended.
- Clues from the inaugural address:
- It had five major themes.
- It augurs radical change, if you know how to read between the lines.
- Clues from Trump’s nominees and advisors. Recommended.
- Clues from the campaign (long) and the new White House website (short).
- A list of the major things Trump might do in his first term.
- Foreign Policy: What is the right label?
NEXT WEEK: “Turkey – The Future or the End of Modern Islamism”
Okay, maybe I’m reaching on this one. When I google phrases like “is American democracy collapsing” I get either Socialist Workers Party-type left-wing screeds or Obama’s FEMA army is coming for your guns right-wing stuff. But, an avowed White supremacist con-man has been the leading candidate for president of one of our two major political parties for seven months. Our national legislature is as dysfunctional as at any time since Fort Sumter. The middle class keeps hollowing out. Something’s wrong.
But, can we say that the system failing us lately augurs something much worse, like a devolution into some kind of non-functioning failed state or – maybe worse – a softly-authoritarian super-state? Many countries have the forms of democracy without the substance. Are we really immune?
To me, our first step on Monday should be to explore what we think American democracy is supposed to be like when it’s functioning properly. How does it determine the public interest, mediate between conflicting demands on govt resources, and self-correct? We also have to avoid getting carried away. There’s no military coup in our future, almost certainly. Nor are we likely, IMO, to discard the basic outer forms of democracy, like elections and a free press. And, yes, every generation has worried U.S. democracy will fall apart unless it does what the complainer wants. We’re pretty resilient pessimists.
The thing is: Sometimes the pessimists have been right to worry. Our democratic system was bent and broke or nearly broke over slavery, Reconstruction, Robber Baron excesses, labor rights and violence, the Great Depression, and the fight over ending segregation, to name just the most obvious ones. Today, people are worried over whether our democracy is flexible enough to handle a bunch of intersecting/interrelated problems:
- Rising economic inequality and concentrated wealth with unlimited access to the political system.
- A broken Republican Party.
- An increasingly extreme GOP, bent on changing the electoral rules (voter suppression laws, weakening “1 person 1 vote,” completely deregulating campaign finance laws, gerrymandering, etc.) to lock in its advantages.
- Polarized voters that live in different news/public affairs factual universes.
- A growing dependence (conservative POV) on govt programs for peoples’ livelihood. In this theory, the addicted masses will just keep voting to make govt larger and larger until it becomes a tyranny of the majority that destroys the economy.
- Growing racial and immigration tensions.
- Creeping presidential power due to Obama’s contempt for democracy, or congressional paralysis, or legitimate anti-terrorism needs, or what have you.
Hmmm. I guess we need to dissect the question before we attempt an answer. I will list some of the IMO less-than-nutty worries about the health of American democracy in my brief opening remarks and then we can see where this goes.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- OUGHT: What is American democracy supposed to be like? Whose interest should it serve and how well does it adapt to new conditions and self-correct?
- IS: What has gone wrong recently that might be different from our usual political/social turmoil? Why? What’s the connection between democracy’s health and (a) a healthy economy, (b) social peace versus rapid change, (c) conflicts between elite and group and public interests, and (d) intermediating institutions (like the news media)?
- MIGHT BE: What does it mean to have the forms/institutions of democracy but not the function/actual democracy? Is USA immune?
- ARGUMENTS/EVIDENCE: Who really worries democracy is at risk? What specific evidence/arguments do they offer? Persuasive??
- HISTORY LESSON: How has U.S. politics righted the ship in past times of great doubt about our democracy? (Depression, Robber Baron era, etc.)
- SIGNS TO LOOK FOR: If the pessimists are right, what signs should we look for? What does the GOP civil war augur?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- CivCon has debated important failings of our political system often, such as: Can our political system still solve problems (2/1/714); Who broke Congress (12/7/15); Why great nations fail and could we (4/8/13); What could force the GOP to moderate (1/28/13 before Trump); Are so many Americas dependent on govt it threatens republican democracy (3/3/14)?
- A few of the better links from those meetings:
- The Constitution makes U.S. political paralysis easy.
- The GOP;
- No. Elites in general have failed us. Could be.
- No. The voters are the real extremists.
- Some new material:
Next Week: Do neoconservatives still control GOP foreign policy?
The Constitution made Congress the preeminent branch of the federal government. Even in an age of an imperial presidency, our govt was not designed to function with a paralyzed national legislature.
Yet, we have had one for many years now. Congressional dysfunction began to grow to dangerous levels in the 1990s, as our two main political parties polarized and as the Gingrichian philosophy of treating routine politics as Manichean warfare migrated from the House to the Senate. Yet, even then Congress still was able to perform most of its basic functions most of the time: Passing annual an budget, enacting new laws and needed amendments to old laws, confirming executive and judicial nominees, ratifying treaties, overseeing the executive branch, etc.
On January 20, 2009, that changed too. In a strategy unprecedented in American history, the Republican Party decided the day Barack Obama took office to paralyze Congress completely so as to deny him any chance to pass any of his agenda. Universal filibusters. Refusing for months or years to confirm routine nominees. Negotiating in bad faith and refusing to follow established legislative procedures. Manufacturing budget and debt payment crises and using them to blackmail the president and the country. Non-existent or sham oversight of federal agencies. I could go on and on about the details, and I just might at our meeting.
The non-partisan part of my point is an uncomfortable one to face. Our democracy’s smooth functioning depends less on formal laws or rules or checks and balances than it does on the willingness of our politicians to value the institutions they serve; accept the other side’s legitimacy when they lose elections; and follow informal rules and norms of conduct when they govern, including simple self-restraint.
Obama has used executive power to get around some of this total obstruction. As we’ve discussed, this poses a problem in and of itself. Still, I consider congressional paralysis to be one of the worst problems of our political age. I’ve made sure we talk about it periodically; e.g., 2015 (Who runs the GOP?), 2014 (Can our political system still solve problems?), 2013 and 2012 (GOP congressional brinkmanship), and even six years ago in 2009 (What’s wrong with Congress?)
Why do it again? Because we have entered an even more dangerous stage of democratic deterioration. The Republican Party is now itself broken and that has made Congers doubly-dysfunctional. Since at least 2014, a rump faction in the House, egged on by talk radio and others, has routinely used the same brinkmanship and blackmail tactics on its own leadership. The House “Freedom Caucus’s” demands cost Speaker John Boehner his job and, as I write, his successor Paul Ryan is desperately trying to prevent another govt shutdown on December 11.
Is this our new normal? How can the leading country in the world disable its own national legislature? Can something be done to fix The Broken Branch? On Monday, I’ll go over some of the competing diagnoses for what is driving this car wreck, and then I’ll list a few of the possible solutions. Not all of them involve just changing which politicians and party control Washington.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What do people mean when they say Congress is broken/dysfunctional? How is “broken” different from “not doing what [insert speaker] wants?”
- Why has this happened? Is it a problem of leadership, rank and file members, political parties, interest groups, the news media, or voters?
- How is congressional dysfunction related to our broader political struggles, like partisan polarization and the rise of Trumpism?
- What can be done to repair our national legislature?
- What if Congress can’t be fixed or isn’t fixed? How will we be able to govern ourselves and cooperate to solve national problems?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Congress’ role –
- Congress is the first branch of govt and presidents cannot magically force it to do anything. Recommended.
What Broken Means –
- Basic problem. Or, try this explanation. Either recommended if you don’t know basic story.
- UPDATE a must-read: Oversight of executive branch activities is one of Congress’s most vital functions. But the GOP disgracefully formed a special committee to “investigate” the Benghazi attacks and mutated it into a smear committee that’s sole purpose was to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is one of the most disgraceful abuses of power in congressional history. A must read.
- The Constitution is the problem – but not for the reasons you think! Interesting.
- Extreme ideological polarization in the Republican Party and only in it.
- Worse, “procedural extremism” has followed political extremism. Recommended.
- Republican voters demand their leaders never compromise.
Solutions (??) –
- Speaker Paul Ryan may unify the House and the Senate GOP might get rid of the filibuster entirely.
- If GOP wins in 2016, problem solved!
- Forming a coalition govt – seriously! A must-read.
- An American soft dictatorship is one possible future. Carl mentioned this worry – recommended.
Next Week: Is their a constitutional right to privacy?
Well, I think “post-mortem” was the appropriate title. But, what have we really learned about American politics from the mid-term results? How big was the Republican victory last Tuesday, and its mandate? How big a repudiation of the President and Democrats was it, really? And, what are the implications for the:
- next two years of national policy and gridlock
- 2016 presidential election
- likelihood that either major political party could build an enduring political coalition that can get things done
- state/local governance, which is now overwhelmingly in Republican hands?
I’ll open the meeting by summarizing (1) who won what and (2) why it happened, on which there’s a fair amount of consensus. Then, I’ll list some of the implications of the election outcome, not just on the next two years but also on what this election might tell us about the future of our political wars.
Results and Causes/Meaning–
- Why did the Republicans do so well? Recommended. Why did Democrats lose the Senate?
- 15 lessons from the election. (good conservative POV)
- For Democrats:
- For Republicans:
- It’s a huge vindication of their strategy of total obstruction.
- The GOP landslide in state/local elections is the real prize and matters most of all. Recommended.
- But, winning the Senate could cause the GOP to splinter and/or winning in 2014 could lead to GOP defeat in 2016.
- [NEW[ For Minorities: A huge loss of power, and influence, especially in the now completely White and Republican South.
- Open partisan warfare will continue as before. Recommended
- GOP Senate will keep trying to destroy Obama’s legacy. Recommended
- Judges: SCOTUS and judicial appointments matter the most.
- Foreign policy (the GOP hawks are back) and climate (oh, boy).
- Gridlock of our national government will continue until at least 2022. Recommended
Next Week: A fun break! What one event in U.S. history would you change??