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.