Leaving elections in the hands of plutocrats

Some straws in the wind as the political world begins the long grind toward the 2016 election …
Recently I ran into two old friends at a coffee shop. Both had distinguished careers in Republican politics, one in the presidential arena and the other as head of several state government agencies.

Both told me the same thing: “We’re out of politics … for good. We won’t vote, much less look at political stories in the newspapers.“

Why? “The process has gotten entirely out of control, and it’s terrible for our country.”

They are far from alone. I can’t count the number of friends and acquaintances – Democrats, Republicans and Independents, many of them strong partisans – who are saying essentially the same thing.

Sure, we’ve always complained about politics – but the grumbling has been getting louder and louder, and deeper.

Last week I read a column by Matthew Dowd, now an analyst for ABC News and formerly chief strategist for the successful Bush-Cheney reelection campaign in 2004. He describes the present state of opinion in the country in this way:

“Sixty-seven percent of the country is dissatisfied with where we are or believes we are off on the wrong track, according to Gallup. A majority of voters have an unfavorable view of both political parties,” again according to the respected pollster.

“Finally, the block of independent voters in state after state continues to grow and is at record heights.”

There’s another factor he didn’t mention: Public approval of Congress, never high, has dropped into the low double digits. “Voters continue to hunger for a leader who can bring the country together and get past the polarization and divisiveness. They are tired of the politics of division which pit one group against another,” Dowd says.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, columnist Dana Milbank writes that “Up until the mid-1980’s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion.” He cites an academic study published last year by Shanto Lyengar (Stanford) and Sean J. Westwood (Princeton): Their findings: “Our evidence demonstrates that hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds, and that affective polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race.”

The news media are filled these days with articles about the “invisible presidential primary” now underway, meaning the early competition among candidates for support from a very few vastly rich donors now in the process of picking their favorite candidates – Democrats or Republicans – and showering millions on them.

Courting wealthy donors is nothing new in politics, but the numbers certainly are. According to Politico, California’s Thomas Steyer gave $75 million to Democratic candidates in 2014, while Sheldon Adelson, the Nevada casino magnate, gave $100 million to Republicans in 2012. Various news media, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have reported that the Koch Brothers – David and Charles – plan to spend $900 million for political operations in a variety of states over the next two years.

Politico also reported that of the 100 largest political contributions disclosed for 2014, Democrats received $174 million and Republicans received $140 million. There is, however, far more in donations unreported than ever disclosed.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the First Amendment has been interpreted as giving the wealthy the right to express their political views as they choose, regardless of expense. But to me there is something deeply disgusting when a very few people dominate financing of our ostensibly “democratic” political system without even the pretense of public engagement.

Some months ago, I wrote about the “plutocracy” dominating our politics. I still think it’s a good word. Problem is, I don’t see anything on the horizon signaling much change.

The major parties are organized to band together their respective “bases,” the hard-core, hyper-partisan true believers for whom compromise in the public interest is anathema. The news media landscape, now pruned of serious coverage, has mostly given way to multi-partisan ranting on cable television.

The Internet empowers anybody who has a computer to be a publisher, but provides nobody with an editor’s traditional concern for accuracy and balance. Everybody may be entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

How does guy who’s willing to come up with $20 for his candidate feel when folks are talking about millions? Most likely, he stops contributing. Maybe even stops voting.

Our country has operated for centuries through a democratic political system based on citizen preference, expressed through voting, not a system that’s bought and sold like a loaf of barely edible bread. The last time we experienced something like the dynamics of today was during the “Gilded Age” of the 1920’s.

And we all know what happened after that:

The Great Depression.

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Comments

Tue, 04/28/2015 - 9:15am
SAFE ROADS YES! ($8.7 million) $5.5 million: Michigan Infrastructure Transportation Association $250,000: ITC Holdings $250,000 Michigan Energy First $200,000 Asphalt Pavement Association of Michigan $148,000: Michigan Concrete Association $100,000 ea: Kojaian Management Corp, Michigan Health and Hospital Association, International Union Operating Engineers, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Michigan Townships Association COALITION AGAINST HIGHER TAXES AND SPECIAL INTEREST DEALS ($129,828) Our author nailed it. Take what you want and pay for it says God.
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 9:59am
Phil, I've been a fan of you for sometime. I think you make sense. I don't think you make sense in this column. Rethink where you want to take your audience. In other words, what's the next step?
Richard Jaissle
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 10:18am
The most obvious problem with Citizen's United is that it over looks REPRESENTATIVE government. Why is it OK for some one to contribute to a congressional candidate other than one running in a contributor's district? Why is it OK to contribute to a senate nominee from a different state? The fact that one person can contribute to any number of people who don't even represent him/her is what is skewing our democracy. If money is free speech it must be equal. No one should be able to contribute to any individual who is NOT running for office in their own district (congress) or state (senate).
Marcel Pultorak
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 2:42pm
An excellent point! I agree. Too much of anything does harm and unlimited money in politics will destroy our representative system.
Kathleen Galbraith
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 10:20am
I agree with Mr. Phillips. So how do "We The People" go about correcting the inequities in the political system? Our voice has been silenced at the ballot box when every candidate running has been selected or financed by Big Money. We need major reform in our political selection process. How do we go about achieving it?
David
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 11:12am
The solution to the problem is going to be incremental. A first step is to elect a President and Senators who are agreeable to gradually replacing the Supreme Court Justices responsible for the Citizens United decision.
Larry
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 11:12am
When we the people decide that we have abdicated too much power and money to our governments and decide that we need limited government, that is when we will see limited money flowing into the influencing of government.
Mary
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 12:00pm
When every registered voter takes the time to attend either their local council, township board, or county commissioner meeting to observe the process, you will see change. There is too much apathy and self-indulgence in our society. We are losing civil political discourse due to laziness.
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 3:42pm
Mr. Power confuses two separate issues and makes a major mistake in the process. He says, "There is, however, far more in donations unreported than ever disclosed." and goes on to say, "Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the First Amendment has been interpreted as giving the wealthy the right to express their political views as they choose, regardless of expense." He is implying that Citizens United allows rich donors to make unlimited donations to political parties and candidates. That is not the case. All donations to political parties and candidates must still be reported. The wealthy are allowed to make unlimited, independent expenditures in support of a candidate or party. But those are not donations to parties or candidates. And, it should be pointed out, unions have the same rights as wealthy individuals. To his credit, Mr. Power acknowledges that money has always played a large role in politics. He says, "Courting wealthy donors is nothing new in politics, but the numbers certainly are." The days of campaign finance "reform" are fairly recent. The vast majority of our Presidents and congressmen were elected without limits on donations or reports on who contributed what, and the country seemed to function fairly well. As he says, "Our country has operated for centuries through a democratic political system based on citizen preference, expressed through voting,.." Invisible presidential primaries are nothing new. Mr. Power is closer to the mark when he quotes Dana Milbank as writing, “Up until the mid-1980’s, the typical American held the view that partisans on the other side operated with good intentions. But that has changed in dramatic fashion.” That, and not campaign finance, is the root of our political dysfunction. Our politics has become tribal. We question the very legitimacy of someone's disagreeing with us. He is absolutely correct when he says, "The major parties are organized to band together their respective “bases,” the hard-core, hyper-partisan true believers for whom compromise in the public interest is anathema." We have given up pragmatism, civility and tolerance in favor of the bitter doctrinal differences that at one time characterized religious disputes. Mr. Power himself has fallen victim to questioning motives rather than evaluating ideas. He cites the past or planned future expenditures of Thomas Steyer, Sheldon Adelson, and the Koch brothers as if they all had nefarious motives. He does not consider the possibility that they genuinely believe their ideas are in the country's best interest. It may very well be that their ideas are not, in the long run, in the best interests of the nation, but that is for the voters to decide. And, in any event, it isn't only rich people who advocate and support unwise policies. No presidential candidate can survive the Iowa primary without saying kind words about the Renewable Fuel Standard which requires that gasoline be blended with ten percent ethanol. I was extremely disappointed by Mr. Power's analysis of the cause of the Depression. After contending that our political process is " bought and sold like a loaf of barely edible bread." he goes on to say, "The last time we experienced something like the dynamics of today was during the “Gilded Age” of the 1920’s. And we all know what happened after that: The Great Depression." He is implying the depression resulted from corrupt politics and "plutocracy." Apparently, he did not consider the possibility that the depression was caused by the same forces that has caused numerous other financial panics and depressions: uncontrolled, excessive capital flows and the creation of too much credit.
Grace
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 5:09pm
I agree with Mr Power! I am fed up with both parties and find it hard to support them. The districts are so Gerrymandered that it does not matter who runs for office.
Dan brown
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 5:33pm
What a joke! I mean The Center for Michigan. I mean Phil Power. What a joke. Through demographics and gerrymandering both the state of Michigan and the U.S. legislative bodies do not represent those who vote. At one time earlier in his career, Power advocated representative legislative bodies, but no longer. What a pity. Neither the Center for Michigan nor the Democratic party in Michigan advocate the elimination of gerrymandering. What's needed is a series of amendments to state constitutions that require definite actions: - Elimination of gerrymandering. - Mandatory compromise and action by both House and Senate. - Dissolution of legislatures that fail to take action.
Duane
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 5:51pm
I wonder why people are so quick to whine about the system and so unwilling to work at making the system work. It seems the people that only blame the $s and will fight to risk hearing other views on the issue. I wonder why they would rather discard the system that has changed the world rather then hear that the $s are only trying to fill a void then ask and listen to what the voters have to say. As best I can tell Mr. Power doesn't trust the voters even when he admits that $s don't control how they vote. He would rather condemn the system instead of helping voters be more informed when they vote. Why don't we have a conversation about what information would be valuable to voters in making their choices and why?
John Q. Public
Tue, 04/28/2015 - 7:06pm
'Recently I ran into two old friends at a coffee shop. Both had distinguished careers in Republican politics, one in the presidential arena and the other as head of several state government agencies. Both told me the same thing: “We’re out of politics … for good. We won’t vote, much less look at political stories in the newspapers.“ Why? “The process has gotten entirely out of control, and it’s terrible for our country.” ' That little overture tells the whole story, but not the one I think the author intended. It says to me that there are people out there who spend a lifetime at the public trough getting, if not rich, then at least significantly better off than the average Michigander. After milking the system, they retire in splendor and curse the very dynamics that allowed them to do so. We are where we are because of people like that. They got theirs; going along to get along for decades. They aren't willing to fight for anything or anyone any longer. That's OK--everyone deserves a genteel retirement. Cloaking them in honor as they now declare themselves above the fray will have to be sold elsewhere, though. The way to change the system is to FIGHT it. Fight and win. Power is never ceded; it has to be taken. We're constantly being sold a bill of goods that we just don't want conflict, polarization and divisiveness and won't tolerate it. Well, guess what, folks? That's exactly what they're counting on: steamrolling us because we're so damned conflict-averse. So go ahead, whine about the "divisiveness" as you cower in a corner. When you demand "bipartisanship" and "compromise" and will settle for nothing less, you're doing little more than surrendering to the plutarchy which never shies away from a good fight. We find ourselves where we are because we're cowards. While we're busy whimpering, Bridge Magazine is hosting article after article written by minions of the plutarchy, encouraging us to submit to their will yet again by voting for Proposal 1, to replace the tax revenues they heretofore had to contribute to a working society. They're counting on us to agree to pay so that they may get richer from our contributions. They "provide jobs," though. So go ahead, crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you. I'd rather take a shot at ripping their throats out. If that's "divisive," I plead guilty.
Thu, 04/30/2015 - 11:22pm
Good evening, Phil! I believe that to look at the history helps us decide "where do we go from here?" Everything from making it illegal to use food stamps to buy Tobacco and Alcoholic products when there's a "Mom & Pop" store on every block in the neighborhood to deregulating all communications markets to "Term-Limits" to "Citizens (Corporations) United" has contributed to the situation we find ourselves in today. each of these initiatives (and many more) by themselves never add up to much by themselves,. but, when added together over a long period of time can really steer public opinion and deter our standard of living. Not enough people are paying these things the attention I believe they deserve. I think you should come out of retirement,... and start providing the "Center" everywhere you can!
pat babcock
Fri, 05/01/2015 - 6:43pm
As a twenty year member of two governor's administrations, both Republican and Democrat, I couldn't agree more with the two people that Phil Power references. There was a time when Michigan was viewed as a leading state. While we had significant political debates, there was a basic understanding that that we needed to come together for policies that reflected the good of the commonwealth. Today in Lansing and in Washington, political debate is transactional, rather than substantive. It is driven by money and unyielding ideology, however misguided it may be. Unlike the two respondents that Phil quotes, I still think that pushing for a more competent group of elected and appointed state officials is worth the fight. Pat Babcock
Mitch Bean
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 7:15am
Phil, those are my thoughts exactly. Well done.
paul Beach
Sun, 05/03/2015 - 3:00pm
15% turnout for primary elections,You get the government you deserve, thats democracy.
duane
Thu, 05/03/2018 - 9:47pm

In a country that is the most creative and dynamic, a country with a culture built on challenging tradition, all we hear from the self-proclaimed ‘elite’ is whining about the past in the face of our changing politics.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.-Albert Einstein

When will the ‘elite’ pause and question themselves about politics and money? Last November we watched the highest spending candidate lose, we saw the most experienced politician lose, the one with the government experience lose, when does that get the 'elite's' attention? Is it genetic insanity, is cultural partisanship driven insanity, is it fear of change induced insanity, what is preventing these people from looking at what is and has been happening and recognizing reality? We know it isn’t the age/generation because it was one from that generation who used these changes in his ride to victor.

The questions this self-proclaimed 'elite' need to be asking why is money not determining elections, what do people truly want to know about candidates [is it something other than personal attacks of innuendo and conjecture or is it about results], what do people need to know about the roles and responsibilities of the offices they are voting on? Is campaign money paying to inform the public or is it simply an income source for the media? Why aren't there more of the better candidates running for office?
Maybe the questions readers should be asking is why 'elite' rails about campaign moneys and never talks about how to help voters become better informed, have a better understanding of what the knowledge and skills of an effective official is.

I would like to hear what people find to be the knowledge and skills they have found possessed by those effective officials. I have never heard the 'elite' ask or answer such a question. I have that knowing the right questions to ask and the ability to listen effectively for the answers.