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Entries in campaign finance reform (6)


Lee Atwater: 'A helluva lot more abstract than [saying] 'N----r, n----r'."

Lee Atwater, Southern strategy master mind.

In case there is any doubt that the Republican party still relies on stoking voter prejudice for political gain, let all doubt die a decisive death.

The latest high profile figure to ply the Southern strategy is Rep. Paul Ryan (WI).

The chairman of the Congressional Budget Committee still weathers excoriating criticism for what he has since called “inarticulate” remarks made as a guest of Bill Bennett’s radio show.

The two of them chewed over the congressman’s speech delivered at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). It took little prodding from Bennett for Rep. Ryan to launch his platitude-laden harangue on the “poverty trap” (in his budget it’s reason enough to cut social safety net funding).

Let’s be clear—when you’re a Republican and happen to be talking about poverty, it’s rarely ever in reference to low-income white residents of regions like Appalachia.

Still posing as the GOP’s intellect and conscience, Rep. Ryan let loose a rousing rhapsody on the “tailspin of culture in our inner cities… of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and culture of work….”

Leaving aside his paternalism, as well as the question of whether or not Rep. Ryan consciously referred to communities of color, it would be far more useful to consider the messaging angle of such a screed. Without question, it aims directly at white middle class voters. It is a rhetorical device that has been deeply ingrained in Republican campaign messaging over the last five decades.

A crass explanation of such thinking was once formulated by President Lyndon Johnson in the mid 1960s: “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him someone to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”

Years later, in a 1981 interview with political science scholar Alexander Lamis, the scorched-earth campaign tactician Lee Atwater gave away the key to winning the votes of white Southerners.

You start out in 1954 by saying, "N----r, n----r, n----r." By 1968 you can't say "n----r"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N----r, n----r."

This campaign messaging scheme—originally appealing to the hostility of white Southerners toward the black community—became known as the Southern strategy. Its use by Republicans shows no signs of fatigue. As recently as the 2012 presidential election, Gov. Mitt Romney wielded the Southern strategy in a television ad that accused President Obama of hatching a plan to end the work requirement in welfare. The story was untrue, but that did not stop the Romney campaign from doubling down on the lie.

Both the Romney ad and Rep. Ryan’s poverty double-talk strove to stoke white middle class voter resentment toward a minority segment of our nation that is somehow “getting something for nothing”, while hardworking folks struggle to get by.

Ginning up white middle class antipathy against communities of color merits the classification of con job; especially when Republicans refuse to lift a finger of reform on matters like tax breaks, government subsidies and the privileged treatment they lavish upon their big business clients.

Again, in case there is any doubt about the Republican rhetorical appeal to the enmity of white middle class voters toward minorities, consider a very telling statement made by Sen. Lindsey Graham. It appeared during the 2012 Republican National Convention when GOP bosses were falling over themselves to exhibit an open, more inclusive party to the nation.

"The demographics race we're losing badly," the senator lamented. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

So far this writing has only covered the "convince the lowest white man that he's better" factor of the Johnson equation. What about the part that mentions "picking his pocket"?

It stands to reason that the white middle class, when whipped into frenzy over trumped up threats posed by minorities, won’t give much thought to hedge funds siphoning their pension or 401K assets. Is it just the most head-smacking coincidence that the very same elected leaders who spin campfire stories about the leeching entitlement horde, would also pass out hoarse from arguing for further deregulation of Wall Street?

If the 2008 financial crisis failed to illustrate in Technicolor strokes that voters had entrusted this republic to a malfeasant class of elected leaders, what else possibly could?

In the aftermath of 2008 it hadn’t received much consideration, but a conversation about campaign finance finally emerges—especially now that the Supreme Court has removed the limit on aggregate amounts that an individual can contribute to federal candidates. Will the white midde class take part in the discussion about how to counteract the tsunamic financial force of wealthy campaign contributors? The McCutcheon decison has trimmed election finance's regulatory fig leaf of accountability down to button size.

In election season this will mean a greater volume of television and radio campaign ads, probably … at greater volumes, saturating the airwaves and internet with Southern strategy themes. Won’t someone please alert white middle class voters to stop trading their economic interests for the illusory comforts of superiority? That no matter how promising Rep. Paul Ryan’s path to prosperity appears, it is paved to penury with the campaign contributions of elite financial interests.


We have only ourselves to blame: a voter's manifesto

As a citizen of this nation, chances are that you assume you bear no responsibility for the corrupt and dysfunctional condition of our government.

And, unless you’ve organized with plurality of voters to blunt the outsized influence of elite, wealthy interests, you would be unaccountably wrong.

The assumption especially rings true for do-nothing pundits and hand-sitting voters who habitually blame government for the myriad difficulties we face as a nation. It is, at best, a myopic view. It never accounts for plutocrats who have paid handsomely for access to politicians; nor for well-connected lobbyists and captains of industry who continually co-opt government policy decisions.

The authority of what was once known—and exercised—as the will of the people, wields no such influence. There is no will of the people, only their quiescence.

Where were we, the people, as legal bribery became a frog-boiling reality?

Through passivity and a shameful neglect of civics, voters gave up whatever public policy torque they may have wielded in decades past. In matters like national elections, their participation amounts to nothing more than a rubber stamp of candidates selected by party bosses and large dollar funders.

Somehow the idea that the only viable candidates for public office are those who can raise boatloads of cash, has prevailed over all else—even qualities like vision and character (although we must credit the GOP for fielding a memorable roster of "characters" serving in Congress).

Given the massive amount of funding needed for media buys, political consultants and other campaign “essentials” crucial to winning election, one must see the imprint of a disengaged electorate; a supremely inert body of voters requiring the shock and awe of hyperbolic attack ads to jolt them to a decision between the lesser of two evils. There is a perverse inverse relationship between the meager involvement of voters in electoral politics and how much time and effort incumbents and candidates for public office must devote to fundraising.

It is unmistakable: voters suffer from an influence gap that privileges campaign donors with deep pockets.

However, we have no one else to blame but ourselves.

(By the way, you’ll never hear the politics of campaign finance being discussed in such frank terms by any politician or pontificating pundit who must pretend that legal bribery emits no moral stench.)

Since taxes are such a sensitive, ire-provoking subject, wouldn't it be useful for voters to acknowledge one area where the influence gap puts them at a disadvantage?

The current U.S. tax code maintains the constant churning of legal bribes for members of Congress. To keep de juris tax scoffers like Verizon, Apple and Bristol-Meyers Squibb returning as clients, special exemptions are written into law for their benefit. Such ad hoc statutes come with expiration dates that give a member of Congress reason enough to call his or her corporate client with an urgent request for support in the effort to renew said tax break.

What's the twisted irony of it all? It's how many voters went along with the tax revolts of the 1970s—a time when the middle class failed to notice that wages no longer kept up with productivity, much less with the rising cost of government. While tax bills increased, their representation in government began to wane because of the money flowing from special interests into the pockets of politicians. Voters latched on to protests against “big government” spending, yet failed to understand what actually makes government “big”. It’s not the federal budget or how much assistance a social program provides, but whether or not citizens are engaged in the struggle to hold elected officials accountable. On that effort, our failure has been stunning.

Again, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Avant garde record producer, Brian Eno, summed up electoral politics best when he said that "...we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

"What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing."

For far too long voters have been permissive while an entrenched financial principality has taken over our country’s domestic and foreign policies for private gain—always at the expense of the common good.

So, what is a manifesto without a call to action? Less harm than doing nothing (we’ve tried that, haven’t we?) would be to take about ten minutes of your time to contact your senators and member of congress. What’s the message? Simply say that your vote in the next election will go to the candidate who limits all campaign donations to $250 per contributor (including PACs, super PACs and every other money-churning syndicate that can be imagined).

Everyone knows elected officials are on the take; that the wealthy buy their favorable representation in government. Why not talk about it with your friends, family and social media contacts? Not as a problem we are too helpless to solve, but as a solution waiting for participants to put it into action?



"Small gov't" slogans are for suckers

Ever since The New Deal, conservatives have excoriated the idea of a government that helps the nation's most vulnerable citizens. Through the decades of the Cold War the right's hostility toward government intensified as the U.S. faced off with the repressive Soviet Union. And, with little  effort, conservatives added fear to their loathing of government.

Over time, what hardened into conventional wisdom among conservative thinkers, leaders and voters, found its way into President Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural speech. Delivering his retort to a straw man argument, Reagan asserted, "Big government isn't the solution to our problems, big government is the problem." Such thinking, however, cannot withstand the most lenient level of scrutiny.

The rhetorical assault upon government assumes the participation of a fully engaged voting population. President Reagan's patronizing reference to “we the people” in the same speech,  illustrates this assumption. However, mediocre electoral participation by eligible voters does not bear this out.

Rather than encouraging citizens to exercise greater influence over elected leaders, anti-government ideologues have sought to exploit failures of trust between government and the people whenever they occur. "See? Government does not work! So, we need less of it," say those who angle to profit from a government that is out to lunch as an agent of accountability.

Just look at the financial catastrophe that most of our nation is still digging out of. It is a fact of public record that securities fraud and criminally negligent lending practices led to the siphoning of middle class assets (401k's, pension funds) and filled the coffers of Wall Street's financial elite.

Until this day no significant decision maker from Wall Street has been brought to justice. And no one should harbor hope that any complicit parties will be held criminally accountable--not as long as campaign donations can purchase them the best immunity money can buy. For this miscarriage of justice, voters have no one to blame but themselves. Regulatory and judicial delinquence flourishes at the end of a broken chain of accountability--what should link from citizens to their elected representatives and out over all the civic institutions charged with overseeing the public interest.

Today's typically knee-jerk antagonism toward government conceals a far more crucial dimension of our nation's politics: that voters are largely failing at the task of self-governance.


Every time a voter stands back to blame the government for decisions or bureaucratic folly that violate common sense, that individual abdicates his or her responsibility as a citizen legislator.

What responsibility?

To be specific, first, voters have avoided the effort of staying informed about decisions their elected representatives make--the "why?" or "how much money?" that is incentive for the casting of each legislative vote. Then, more importantly, a majority of voters remain disorganized, unable to ply the force of their considerable numbers. They find it far more preferable to complain than having to interact with other voters for the cause of improving our republic.

There's no more relevant example of this reality than the loud wailing over the "news" of the NSA's surveillance overreach. The sudden shock many have expressed about government snooping authorized by the Patriot Act, illustrates the prerogatives of the Rip Vanwinkle class of voters: passivity and a studied cluelessness. When the original bill was introduced in Congress back in late 2001, it received very little public scrutiny.

Need more evidence?

Look at how difficult it is for everyday citizens to get a fair hearing from their elected representatives on a matter like firearms and public safety. Just a few months ago the U.S. Senate considered legislation expanding background checks for gun sales, an effort that enjoyed support from close to nine out of ten Americans. The measure failed to pole vault over filibuster by only six votes. The National Rifle Association, along with other gun lobby shops, flexed its considerable influence over the Senate in the effort to monkey wrench the background check from approval.

This scenario illustrates the influence gap between the will of a majority and the power of a fractional but elite group campaign funders.

The role as a citizen legislator, however, is a useless part to play unless one cooperates with a plurality of other voters. This cooperation serves as crucial bond within the governing body known as 'we the people'. (Research in the field of physics has looked at the impact of voter networks upon the outcome of elections. Its findings suggest that the party with the most mutually-linked voters comes out on top at the polls.)

Again, it should by now be blindingly obvious that just showing up to vote on Election Day doesn't cut it in this republic--that is, if voters hope to keep up with the syndicate of campaign donors and lobbyists currently pulling Congress's strings.

In order to overcome the influence advantage exploited by wealthy campaign funders, voters must reevaluate candidate viability. Until now, the campaign funders (along with party leaders) have defined viability as the candidate who can competitively raise large sums of money (i.e., keeping up with other contenders raising mounds of  mammon). As a result, a campaign's budget has become the de facto barometer of a candidate's worthiness as a public servant. The quality of his or her ideas? Not so much.

So it begs the question--how do voters go about redefining candidate viability? How might they demand campaign finance accoutability from candidates running for public office? Whatever effort they attempt, they need a plurality of citizens to speak with one voice so that it is clear to political candidates that an election cannot be won without this plurality of voters.

What said plurality of voters must demand from candidates is equal consideration of all voters; and without limiting all campaign donations to an amount that equalizes the influence of all citizens, fairness will continue its exile from our nation's politics.

With this in mind, I have launched a petition addressed to the 2016 Democratic front-running candidate for president, Hillary Clinton. The document asks Mrs. Clinton to limit all donations to her campaign for president to $250 per donor. (A reasonable criticism of this petition suggests that it unfairly singles out Clinton's campaign. This would be true if there had already emerged a front runner from another major party whose members are assembling the apparatus for a 2016 run.)

This petition must utilize the Clinton name recognition and notoriety to reach as many voters as possible. It has the lofty goal of reaching five (5) million signatures by Jan. 2015--a number I hope will make campaign finance accountability worthy of discussion within the political arena.

Given that most voters, as individuals, do not give a second thought to what practical steps they can take to stop the legalized bribery, this petition at the very least opens a discussion about consensus building among voters for meaningful change. Aside from sending a crucial message to political candidates, the petition's intent seeks to engage voters in a simple conversation about political campaign funding and fairness within our republic.


No matter who wins, the voters lose

And the loss is self-inflicted.

Already conversations are underway about presidential race for year 2016. More often than not, voters who complain and write off the political process will not engage with other voters in the effort required to draft a candidate to run for office.

Instead, most voters will wait around over the next four years, looking in from the outside as party leaders, loaded campaign contributors and political operatives decide what candidates will be "viable"--worthy of their support, primarily; then there is that secondary consideration--will voters support them?

For once can't we, the people, do the foot work for a presidential candidate that makes the exploratory committee and party machinery obsolete? Voters have the numbers to make this a reality; lacking only the coordination and political will.

How goes the cliche? If you don't vote you have no right to complain. And complaining never drew any voter closer to the decision making process that nominates and ultimately elects a candidate president.


Is money allowed to cry 'fire' in a crowded theatre?

The US Supreme Court's recent call to let their Citizens United decision ride reinforces  a kind of Animal Farm persuasion that taints elections in this country: simply put, that all votes are equal but some are more equal than others. Take heart--billionaires will remain unfettered in their efforts to buy elections.

Those who defend Citizens United blinklessly assert that corporations are people, too, my friend--an argument so specious as to be worthy of drunks and defiant children. Who has yet to address the twisted irony about today's corporation--whose purpose is to manage personal liability (meaning, avoid personal culpability) for its members; and now they cling to the Bill of Rights? Not only do elite, moneyed interests want to have their cake--they want to inhale it as well.

If you have any doubt that corporations enable the abandonment of personal responsibility, you should read about the Wachovia money laundering scandal that no one remembers anymore--that not one official from the bank was even arrested doesn't improve anyone's chances of recollection.

Need a more recent reminder? Not one member of any financial institution that misled investors and spread toxic mortgage assets--leading to the 2008 economic meltdown--has been arrested.

Fast forward to 2010: the British Petroleum oil spill--no arrests. Oh, wait, the feds did recently file some fey obstruction of justice charge against a low ranking engineer for deleting text messages. It's an arrest certain to strike fear in the hearts of would-be polluters all over the world.

What to do? Many progressives are spreading the message about a constitutional amendment that would reverse Citizens United. It's a great idea, however, said amendment would have to pass through the congressional and statehouse machinery that is largely already owned by elite, moneyed interests.

The solution will require a de facto effort on the part of those who care for the common good. The challenge appears almost impossible: ignorance and apathy have joined forces to comprise the 40% of eligible voters who fail to show up at the polls come election time. We are failing to teach the 40% a civics-minded media literacy, the kind of knowledge informing each voter about his or her choices--that there is no obligation to support candidates for public office who trade their decision making for large, bundled campaign contributions. Ultimately they must learn (and it may come to the hard way) what is at stake for his or her quality of life and well being.

It's a goal comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s hope for an educated citizen--someone prepared for the tasks of self-government and encouraged “to judge for himself what would secure or endanger his freedom.”