Bernie and Ralph

May 24, 2016

Let’s talk about Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader. I have enormous respect for what both men have been trying to tell us. I also have enormous respect for Nader’s willingness to plow his earnings back into the effort to improve many aspects of life while he, Nader, lived on a shoestring.

Then came the 2000 election. Nader argued that there was no difference between the major parties so it didn’t matter which one won that election. On the economic issue he was close to right, although the 2008 meltdown should have made clear that there are important differences between Republicans and Democrats on handling the economy. On other issues, particularly the environment, and the War in Iraq, the parties were far apart. That election made an enormous difference.

And it almost killed Nader’s movement; it certainly killed his ability to be an effective advocate. The conversation after the 2000 election wasn’t about Nader’s message; it was about the damage Nader did.

Bernie has an important message, which he shares with people like Elizabeth Warren and Ralph Nader, that the American economy is organized to take advantage of the vulnerable and deliver its benefits to those who have much more than they need. But if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, what happens to Bernie’s message will depend on how he treats Hillary. It will be important for his message that he works for her election – and that his supporters do. If he and they work for the ticket, then his message has staying power because it becomes a shared message, his people are welcome and they broaden their own power within the Party. But if they sit it out or vote for the other side, their only message is that they aren’t important, reliable or helpful. It will stir resentments that will block their appeal going forward.

Nurturing Bernie’s message requires looking beyond this election, making friends and alliances for future elections. The way to create a lasting movement is to build on good feelings and organize for challenging down ballot in future federal, state and local elections much like what conservatives did to the Republican Party. Winning the top spot is a defective balloon, useless without down ballot organization. Bernie’s people have a chance to push the whole party, not just the White House, to the left. That’s the big prize. It doesn’t mean Bernie lost if he can’t catch Hillary; it means he and his supporters can do something much more powerful and sustainable.

Sitting back, or communicating that it’s my way or the highway infuriates the public. Republicans are learning the costs of that strategy, and even if Donnie wins, he may have no coattails or ability to govern. One of the crucial features of a democratic culture is the ability to be a good sport. Moderates usually win in the general election because that’s where the public is, so compromise must join principle in a successful strategy. Movements build over time. The best way to limit a movement’s prospects is to look like a sore loser.

I hope that message gets across to Bernie and his supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 24, 2016.

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Money in Politics

May 26, 2015

For decades before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, political scientists concluded that more money helped our democracy by increasing competition. They had also concluded that it did not disadvantage Democrats, who would hold their own in fundraising. Even after Citizens United, those conclusions still seem true. But those scholars did not address other ways that money changes politics.

I’m still angry with Ralph Nader for his part in the 2000 election. His claim that there was no difference between the parties seems way off the mark. It’s hard to imagine Al Gore would have made the same mistakes George Bush did. But Nader was onto something else. Every candidate, from Gore to Hilary and Bush to Romney, has sought support from the financial industry and other tycoons and multinationals. Some regulatory proposals looked different when first made but all were whittled down. Obama supported Elizabeth Warren for a new agency but relented to the opposition. Money matters.

That’s fiendishly difficult to measure. Most scientific work is based on comparisons. When everybody’s doing it, there are no satisfactory comparisons.

But the consequences are huge. The cost of campaigns is increasing fast, doubling since 2000. More than a fifth of the expense of Senate races, and more than a third of the cost of House races came from PACs in 2014. Outside organizations now spend more than 20% of campaign expenses, increasingly from undisclosed sources. Of the rest, less than a third of 1% of the adult population of the U.S. provides two thirds of all individual contributions to federal candidates, PACs and Parties.[i]

What do they get for that? From 2007 to 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, “America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions.” The Foundation concluded that, in return, those same corporations got “$4.4 trillion in federal business and support,” more than the government paid all Social Security recipients, and two-thirds of all the money that all of us together as “individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.” Kevin Phillips had described the power of such political investment as many thousands to one?[ii] Sunlight Foundation calculated that “for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government,” a seventy-six thousand percent return.[iii] Contributions coupled with lobbying work exceedingly well at those levels.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues elaborated the impact of what they call the “selectorate,” the people who dominate the choice of political leadership.[iv] As the selectorate shrinks, politicians direct ever increasing public benefits toward that shrinking group and fund them on the backs of everyone else, paving a path to the collapse of democratic government. Here, that one tenth of one percent of Americans, who bring home the great majority of America’s wealth, dominate our politics as they do our wallets.

Political scientists urge public funding as the best available solution. Just take money out of the equation. The public doesn’t like funding politicians they may not agree with, and we don’t much like paying their salaries either. But to get a politics which takes account of the welfare of the entire American population, it appears to be the most likely path. And a very good investment.

Next week, the risks.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 26, 2015.

[i] The Center for Responsive Politics keeps track of the data at OpenSecrets.org. See https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/index.php, https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php and https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/donordemographics.php [visited May 12, 2015] for the information presented.

[ii] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).

[iii] https://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/11/17/fixed-fortunes-biggest-corporate-political-interests-spend-billions-get-trillions/.

[iv] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).


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