Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?
These days, for my sole vote to represent the sum total of my political power seems a fairly bleak prospect. Goodness knows, I don’t have enough money to buy off candidates to do my bidding, I can’t buy the amount of TV ad time that sways undecided voters to my side, and I can’t fund the kind of operations that hire people to get out the vote for their side and to suppress the vote of their opponents’ side. When up against these forces fueled by people with money and power I can’t even imagine, my vote really doesn’t amount to shit. But is it the end of the world if our votes are meaningless? Is it the end of Democracy? We’ll still be able to buy our flat-screen TVs, Happy Meals and Big Gulps, won’t we? Look, I’m not asking for much, I just want to know that my vote, which is my voice in the political arena just as my dollar is in the commercial one, MEANS something. Sure, it’s just one vote among however many (only a few thousand in my local elections), and the candidate I vote for doesn’t always win (almost never does in my local elections), but I just want to know that my vote joins with others to support a candidate who truly speaks to the issues I care about and that affect me and my family.
We have a tendency to speak out of both sides of our mouths in this country. We’re told that voting is a sacred right in our democracy. As such, you would expect the ability to vote to become easier, particularly in the 21st century when technology makes these things available at the touch of a button. Ironically, we’re far more open and trusting with our online financial transactions than we are with our votes. And yet, we get legislation that places more and more restrictions on voting, not less. By 2016 in North Carolina, for example, voters will be required to show a photo I.D. as part of a new law given the clever acronym of VIVA (Voter Information Verification Act), one whose intent is anything but the long life of a person’s right to vote. The ostensible reason for enacting this legislation is to stop or prevent cases of voter fraud that barely exist (31 credible – not convicted – cases out of a billion votes cast nationally, according to this article, with barely a reference to NC in it), but anyone with a brain knows that something more nefarious is at work here. The intent of these laws is to RESTRICT the vote, especially the votes of a certain segment of our population – low income, minority – who are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. Along with the photo i.d. requirement, NC has also shrunk the window for early voting, a convenience also predominantly utilized by more liberal voters. The coup de grace is gerrymandering done by the party in power (currently Republicans) that draw up district lines in such a way that give advantage to their party. (Even as I write this, Sen. Tom Apodaca of Henderson County, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, has doubled-down on the Republican leadership’s refusal to convene an independent commission to examine the redistricting.)
These maneuvers in my state have only set the stage for the Big Show, and I’m already getting a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach over the 2016 general election. The Koch brothers recently announced that they intend to spend nearly $900 million in that election. It was the 2012 election that broke the money barrier and became the first billion dollar race in history, so with almost two years to go, it looks as though 2016 will easily double that. What’s curious about the Koch brothers’ move is that this comes after achieving almost ZERO return on their approximately $400 million in the 2012 election. They’re doubling down, too, in other words. I’m no math wizard but even I know that two times zero is zero, so is there more going on than we realize? Or could it be that this kind of announcement is meant to intimidate not only those candidates who may be thinking of running against someone they support but also the common voter like me? (And we’ve yet to hear from Karl Rove and his American Crossroads who spent around $300 million in 2012, also with very little to show for it.) Perhaps they are signaling to us that resistance is futile, that we’d better accept the candidates they put forward, and if we do we’ll be rewarded by their trickle-down beneficence. Consider the Koch’s announcement alongside this statement from the UN with regard to the brutal slayings of innocents by ISIS: “By publicizing its brutality, the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or States that challenge its ideology.” If you replace “brutality” with “$900 million in cash” and “ISIS” for “Koch brothers, etc.” you get a sense of the winner-take-all mentality at work here. (And, no, I’m not saying that the Koch brothers, etc. are terrorists like ISIS, only that the intimidation tactics of terrorists and bullies are pretty much the same.)
Here in North Carolina, we have our own flavor of Koch in the form of acolyte Art Pope (New Koch? Cherry Koch? Diet Koch?). Like the Kochs, Art Pope was able to parlay wealth he inherited to amass a political network of conservative think tanks and specially chosen candidates that have pushed legislation designed to systematically dismantle the safety net for the poor, as well as undermine our public education system, all while protecting his and his peer groups’ hold on wealth and power. Pope’s behind-the-scenes political machinations jumped the shark when he was appointed by Governor McCrory to be the state’s deputy budget director, where the assault began in earnest on public assistance for those in need during the worst economic downturn in our state since the Depression, our K-12 and community college system, a preschool program (More at Four) that was the top in the nation, and a public university system that ranked as one of the best in the nation (except for the fact, according to Pope and his cronies, that it produced too damn many liberals). Having recently resigned from his budget director post, the rumor in the state is that he has set his sights on being the new president of the UNC system, after current president Tom Ross was unexpectedly given the boot by the mostly McCrory-appointed Board of Governors. Pope has denied being interested in the position, but that doesn’t rule out him accepting it if asked nicely by the Board of Governors.
In a Democracy like ours the people still have the power and always will due to their numbers, if they would only stand up and assert it, but where that power truly resides, if not in our right to vote, I honestly don’t know. My doubt and despair is not anything new and has probably been the “little guy’s” plight since the beginning of our republic – hell, of ALL republics. Perhaps I’m just waking up to the death of another childhood dream like Santa Claus. Instead of finding out it’s your parents who deliver all those presents under the tree on Christmas morning, you wake up one day to discover that it’s actually the Koch brothers and their ilk who cook up and serve your elected representatives. I try take encouragement that there have been times in our nation’s history when the people rose up to assert their power. Clearly, we are a long way from another Age of Reform, so what epoch are we undergoing now, the last gasp of the plutocrats or just the beginning of their amassing of power? I shudder to think.
Running for office as a way to serve the country and the people becomes farcical when you read stories such as how Mitt Romney arrived at his decision not to make a third run for the presidency. He didn’t come to this decision by searching his soul or seeking his family’s counsel – acting, in other words, out of principle, the strength of his own convictions or leadership. Instead, he presented himself to the court of the kingmakers, kissed their ring, only to have them say, “Meh.” Let that sink in for a second: even someone as rich and powerful as Romney has to kick the shit of these assholes off his shoes. Sadly for Romney, they’ve moved on to another Flavor of the Year. Auditions are still taking place for that next conservative white knight, where it looks like Rand Paul has already failed because he disrespected his potential patrons by wearing jeans and cowboy boots to their coming out party for presidential hopefuls. “Jeans might work for a younger audience,” said an attendee of the Koch-sponsored conference, “but these are old bulls who put on a tie every day to go to the office.” That’s right, folks, our political candidates are not chosen by the people but vetted and hired by 80 year old trolls like Charles and David Koch and Sheldon Adelson who’ve long outlived theirs, and the nation’s, usefulness. There’s even a political science term for it: “invisible primary.” (Institutions may change one death at a time, but neither we nor the planet can afford to wait for these greedmongers to die.) Their candidates are then sold to us in the election cycle as if they were the new fall line of clothing. Nine hundred million dollars is an advertising campaign that rivals the $988 million MacDonald’s spent on marketing in 2014. Instead of Big Macs, however, we get a constant barrage of fear mongering and deceitful ads, and a puppet politician who speaks a version of the people’s language that’s crafted by marketers but who has been bought to represent the interests of his paymasters, or else he’s tossed out in exchange for the next puppet. A silver lining in all this money spent is that the Koch network did not achieve their ultimate goal of defeating Obama, thereby pissing most of their money down the drain, but you can argue how that doesn’t matter when their money supported enough candidates in the House and Senate to effectively thwart Obama’s agenda. Jesus, show me to the nearest shower.
It gets worse when you view politics according to a recent football analogy by Vox’s Ezra Klein:
“We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.”
Unfortunately, politicians tend to legislate the same way that they run their elections, and legislating in the time of Obama’s presidency has nothing to do with addressing real and urgent issues, such as climate change and income inequality, but instead works to thwart whatever it is that Obama and his party are trying to accomplish – or something sillier (keep making NC proud, Thom!). You hear a lot about how government should be run more like a business. Well, this IS government run like a business, where creative destruction and churn of the market abounds in the outmaneuvering and outselling of the competition (the other party) until they get pushed OUT of business. It’s a game of winners and losers, and I’ll let you in on a news flash: it’s we the people who lose in this deal.
A friend who reads this blog (I’m not assuming those two go hand-in-hand) suggested that rather than always focusing on the negative of a situation I should try to offer reality-based solutions. I take the point, but I’m grasping for solutions to this particular malaise. The two solutions I can think of, overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and publicly financing our elections, require vast majorities of the people, as well as the bold actions of elected officials that would inevitably go against the interests of the people who put them in office in the first place. See, the Republicans get that one way to neutralize Obama is to take away the power of the purse, so why not use the same tactic against them? That is, cut off ALL politicians (Democrats share in the blame for this mess) from the money that fuels our elections and provides their raison d’etre? I’m not saying these things can’t happen, I’m just saying they’re highly unlikely. As a fan of his book Republic, Lost, I’m intrigued by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig’s Super PAC to End All Super PACs, but I don’t believe in fighting fire with fire or, worse, bringing a knife to a gun fight, especially when the other side has a veritable nuclear arsenal. Lessig is correct in his underlying premise, however, that only a grassroots uprising will correct the kind of flagrant violation of our democracy that absurdly equates money with free speech and corporate rights with those of the individual. After all, it is an immutable law of the universe that the powerful do not willingly give up their power. It must be taken from them. I can only hope that these grassroots movements are percolating now, created and sustained by people stronger and more energetic than I, and when they appear I intend to support them. Until then, for my own sanity’s sake, I have a tendency to retreat to those areas over which I have a modicum of control and can make a difference. That these arenas remove me further from political involvement is not so much cowardice borne of disillusionment as it is electing to conserve my energy for the private and personal actions that matter. It was U2’s Bono who once sang, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” I will continue to exercise my right to vote, but it will be a while before it means anything more than buying a box of popcorn for a movie I don’t even want to see.