examiner.com (book review originally printed by examiner.com)
by Bryon Delear
September 10, 2014: Updated 11/3/2014
In many ways our current economic paradigm is driven by wealth; wealth of resources, wealth of knowledge and so forth. The accumulation has been abundant as evidenced by the first Green Revolution which accelerated the rapid population growth of our species. In 1800, we were at one billion people. Starting in the 1940s, increases in agricultural productivity helped continue the upward curve with some end-of-century projections now standing at more than 10 billion souls. Only an overabundance of resources could support such exponential expansion—but in a world where democracy and notions of equality have also risen to unparalleled heights over the last two centuries, wealth, and in particular material wealth, has yet to be democratized in any substantive way. In fact, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
This is one of the many points driven home by college professor Peter Mathews in his new book, Dollar Democracy: With Liberty and Justice for Some. It’s not a novel argument, but Dollar Democracy does not claim to field a spate of innovations. Mathews’ book is a compendium of evidences and cases covering the historical background of how America’s experiment in democracy has been subverted to largely serve select interests. In a phrase, Big Money.
Big Money rules the roost in Washington D.C. by steering legislators around by nose rings made of campaign contributions. Mathews, a former candidate himself, does not equivocate on the matter.
“Rich individuals and corporations hire lobbyists to walk into the offices of Congresspersons to whom they donated, and ask them to vote in favor of their corporate interests against the public interest.”
Veteran legislators serving the status quo might even get an honorary gold
nose ring for their wound-up, toy robot loyalty—which is usually expressed by a punch-drunk dance of obfuscation whenever the topic of inequity is broached. Political theorist Noam Chomsky
explains that often what is not
discussed is really a symptom of these monied interests pulling the puppet strings.
“One of the ways you control what people think,” says Chomsky, “is by creating the illusion that there’s a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays within very narrow margins. Namely, you have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions, and those assumptions turn out to be the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, then you can have a debate.”
The propaganda is served up by the mainstream media, which basically acts as the PR-arm of Big Money. Indeed, it’s this narrow field of debate that in many cases works to dilute the voice of everyday Americans with the greatest threat to democracy, perhaps, being the issues held in common by the two major political parties rather than the trivial issues of debate that separate them. For some, this may be hard to conceive of initially because the light-and-sound show we all almost constantly bathe in has been designed to accentuate conflict and debate as the chief means of capturing high ratings and advertising revenue—again, Big Money calling the shots to the point of, as Mathews describes, “selling out the American dream.” It’s a condition that reminds one of the infamous mantra from All The President’s Men—”follow the money”—a useful truism to diagnose what ills society in general.
Mathews explains, “The problem is that only the top 1% can afford to pay and get to play. The rest of America, the bottom 99%, can’t afford to pay and don’t get to play in the game of politics which effects many aspects of our lives: access to good jobs, quality affordable education, adequate health care, good roads and clean efficient public transit, safe neighborhood, good parks and recreation, public libraries, dependable infrastructure, after school academic and arts programs, and leisure time, such as guaranteed paid vacations, to spen with our children, families, and friends.”
Mathews laments the fact that the political machinery has been hijacked by special interests and has been manipulated into subservience to Wall Street. Shouldn’t policy be based primarily on its merits? Why can’t we have a robust debate where all Americans can be heard with at least some level of parity? These kinds of questions have been asked by reformers throughout the ages, and when certain conditions emerge, fundamental reform is a necessity—or else revolution becomes inevitable. If self-determination is a vaunted American ideal, surely much of the population, effectively silenced and suffering the conditions of wage slavery, has been closeted out of the “American dream.” Dollar Democracy
delivers a progressive point of view which makes the case for political inclusion
, not exclusion.
The book also lays out charts and tables which show the structural imbalance instigated by Big Money… Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Insurance, Big Defense, Big Pharma—big, big, big. A Christ-like motif emerges which is woven throughout the fabric of progressivism: shouldn’t the least among us have a say? —that this is the spirit of democracy and equality, but in a world where wealth equals food, water, transportation, health care, education, access to power, the inequity we are beset with is staggering. Wealth amassed by a handful of people equals the wealth of half the nation and recent studies confirm the political bias that this engenders.
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” ~ Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University.
Clearly, we’re due for a gargantuan political enema and Mathews offers several real world solutions to help flush out the corruption.
Separation of ‘Buck’ and State
Just as much as the Separation of Church and State promotes religious freedom and works to eliminate prejudices and bigotry by supporting minority views, a new axiomatic ideal that contends with Big Money is needed. This axiomatic ideal must be made into law to elevate popular opinion and reassign control of our democracy to the people. One might call this the “Separation of ‘Buck’ and State.” The Separation of ‘Buck’ and State is an ethical wall built between our private and public institutions to get the corrupting influence of money out of our corridors of power.
The current number of efforts and groups dedicated to this goal are legion. But these myriad movements toward fundamental campaign reform have one thing in common: they are all faced with confronting the weight, leverage, and control that makes up the very lifeblood of the global economy, and here it is again… Big Money. And Big Money pushes back hard. The disparity in power makes most efforts at reform look like “tilting at windmills.”
So what are we to do?
Mathews, a 30-year Professor of Political Science and former U.S. House candidate, opens Dollar Democracy with a quote from one of his heroes:
“Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.” ~ U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone.
Indeed this is what politics should
be about, but it’s not. What is needed is a plan to get it that way. Dollar Democracy
offers a concrete roadmap for social and economic justice by going after root causes.
Clean Money is an incremental step towards the “Separation of ‘Buck’ and State,” or what Mathews calls a “Real Democracy.” Clean Money provides an alternative funding path for candidates for office. A candidate can declare that they are “running clean,” and after proving they have wide support among constituents (relatively speaking), the Clean Money candidate receives public financing for their campaign operations. Imagine that, a publicly supported campaign for public office. Seems obvious huh?
Clean Money legislation has been initiated in several states but can’t seem to gain traction nationally because the gatekeepers are Congress itself. They are the masters of the current “pay to play” system and only give lip service to public financing of campaigns. Evidently, the cure for the political plague of Big Money is going to have to doctored in by the people.
Dollar Democracy documents corporate-sponsored Supreme Court rulings over the last century that have created the monster. Several legal abominations have been parasitically grafted onto Lady Liberty; one is, money isn’t “property” per se, it’s really Free Speech. Translation? Some people can buy a lot more Free Speech than others. So much so, that, as stated earlier, Big Money dominates the airwaves, the debate, and policies concocted in D.C.
Another legal abomination is something called “Corporate Personhood” which grants the rights of Free Speech, religion, etc. to corporations. Problem is, this introduces into society an eternal “super-citizen” that, for example, can invest in 1000 candidates, buy 1000 homes, where you or I would be fortunate to own just one (home, that is, not owning a candidate, that’s what Big Money does).
The most poignant distillation of Corporate Personhood I’ve ever heard was written by Jan Edwards and Molly Morgan in their 2004 paper, Abolish Corporate Personhood:
“Slavery is the legal fiction that a person is property. Corporate Personhood is the legal fiction that property is a person.”
So it’s imperative that we get this turned around. Mathews endorses a effort led by former Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb
called “Move to Amend
.” Move to Amend’s “We The People” 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would “void Corporate Personhood and declare that Money Is Not Speech as understood by the 1st Amendment.” They have amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of this effort and have introduced legislation.
There is one noteworthy tool for rebooting our political system not mentioned in Mathews’ book. The Article V Convention, which I’ve written about at length
, is a method for change that is gaining in popularity. Essentially, when our Constitution was crafted, the Founders anticipated the eventual rise of a Federal government unwilling or unable to pass reforms that have wide support. In short, Congress is directed by the Constitution to convene a “convention for proposing amendments” should 2/3rds of the state legislatures apply for one. Over 700 applications
have been sent in from 49 states (only 34 need apply), and yet, they’ve never been “counted” by Congress, so no convention. Yet.
Dan Marks of ArticleV.org has formally asked Congress for an official count of the state applications, and Congress is, of course, trying to slow walk the request. Their fear is that if they really count the applications (which is their implicit duty), it will only confirm Congress’s dereliction over the last century. America should have had her first convention as early as 1911 as research by FOAVC co-founder Bill Walker has shown and is displayed on FOAVC’s website
. Of course Congress would rather retain their unconstitutional monopoly over the power to propose amendments. So, much like public financing of campaigns, some occasional lip service is offered without any real recognition of this sacred right that’s never been allowed to see the light of day.
There are “Fiver” activists from both the right and left supporting the Article V Convention who are trying to get past the polarizing issues of debate and work together. Things like Corporate Personhood and Money as Speech could be debated on the left, while a Balanced Budget Amendment could be debated on the right. Any ideas approved by the convention must go to the states before they’re added to our constitution—75% of the states then must agree which would eliminate anything radical. Overly partisan amendments would be nonstarters.
The fact that the opportunity exists for everyday Americans to become more fully engaged and grab the reins of control from a cynical, professional political class is exciting and hopeful. Power back to the people. Or maybe, power to the people in ways never seen before. Meanwhile, Congress continues to violate the direct language of the Constitution by NOT counting the applications for a convention. They would rather us all go away and not bother them while they work. But as Dollar Democracy intones, it is self-evident who they’re working for, and it’s not us.
With help from tireless activists like Peter Mathews who have been on the front lines for decades and do not show any signs of wavering, movements like Clean Money
, Move to Amend
, Friends of the Article V Convention
, Convention of the States
, Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC
, Cenk Ungur’s Wolf PAC
, and countless others, will help pave the way for much-needed reforms. One thing’s for sure, we’re going to have to keep bothering them, especially
while they work. Press in, check out Dollar Democracy,
and join the fray.
Reviewers statement: A copy of ‘Dollar Democracy: With Liberty and Justice for Some’ was provided by publicist Ilene Proctor, and the author, Peter Mathews, was interviewed by phone.