By Greg Hodes
“GAINING VOTER CONTROL OF THE ELECTION PROCESS”
(An invitation for critical comment.)
This is an updated and somewhat revised version of an essay written a little before the “Occupy Movement.” It was sent to several dozen eminent progressive political analysis in the hope that someone would tell us where we had gone wrong and offer a better informed and more probablr solution. With two exceptions, it was ignored. The exceptions were Noam Chomsky who “hoped it would get some traction” (Chomsky saw an earlier, less ambitious version) and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell’s former Chief-of-Staff) who thought that “the voters were too apathetic.” That was enough to keep the essay’s authors interested.
But we had also begun to realize that no one who was better informed and in a position of influence (not even Chomsky) was thinking seriously about a “how-to-get-there-from-here” plan and, so, was not positioned to see that the election process has been preempted in such a way as to block in advance all the currently available means of recovering it.
Even now it is not recognized that this financial virus thrives by disabling the immune system of the political organism it is attacking. This is evident from the current obsession with President Trump – as though he were the problem, rather than merely an unanticipated, pathologically florid, symptom of it, as well as by the hysterical hand waving to the effect that we must do more to apply standard remedies that have chronically failed.
It is not surprising that we cannot “win for losing.”
If the analysis we offer has gone wrong, help us to see where; and if there is a remedy more likely to succeed, tell us what it is. Neither the original proposal nor this update has had the benefit of the thoughtful criticism we hoped it would receive. Perhaps recent events will elicit it.
I. The Problem
It has been widely understood for some time that major corporations, Wall Street, and a few super-wealthy individuals (the “CWS”) have preempted our election process and, with it, the power to determine our national priorities. What is not generally understood is that this corporatel coup cannot be reversed by any means now available to us: for all those means depend for their success on the compelling force of the very votes it has disabled.
The abuses that require reform have blocked the only means of reforming them.
Union contributions are also massive; but because it is known in advance that they will always be offered to same major party and counter-funded by the CWS, they seem to have little impact on the outcome. Nevertheless, insofar as these contributions are coer-ced or do not represent the views of individual union members, they also are part of the problem.
Readers for whom this is old news may wish to go directly to the proposed remedy (beginning at page 3). Those interested in argument and elaboration should read on.
However cogent and broadly based our demands may be, they will be ignored as long as the candidates, the political establishment, and the CWS that funds them are confident they can arrange for it to be always too late for reform when we go to the polls. Massive contributions to both major parties will have bound both candidates to the CWS agenda, and the resulting hyperinflation of the cost of candidacy will have effectively eliminated any “third” party challenge.
Obviously, voters cannot “out-bid” such virtually unlimited wealth. Nor would the problem be solved by enlisting the resources of a few, “well-disposed” super-wealthy individuals. Their intervention would be uncertain and ad hoc and would surely be counter-funded by the “ill-disposed” super-wealthy. Even if such an expedient were to succeed, it would reinforce the belief that money is a proxy for votes and launch a myth of the “rich and noble political benefactor” – thus reinforcing the very venality and adulation of financial success (excess) that created the present crises.
Just as our options as voters will be fictitious, so the information we need will have been “spun,” suppressed, or invented. Worse, campaign discourse will have been “framed” in such a way as neither to engage nor to respond to critical inquiry. Instead, there will have been a “race to the bottom” in political “marketing,” the chief objective of which will be to leave voter complacence about CWS priorities undisturbed.
We are urged to organize. But what known remedy can we organize that will survive the preempted election process it is intended to reform? “Getting out the vote” (“grass roots” or otherwise); appeals to our political representatives; support or creation of “third” parties; demands for Constitutional Amendments or new voting laws; protests; civil disobedience – none of these can succeed if there is no one listed on the ballot who is both electable and reliably committed to their success.
Voters worried about which particular unsatisfactory candidate has prevailed in a systemically disabled and preempted election process or about what unsatisfactory nat-ional priorities it has most recently established, should ask themselves whether, with rare and unpredictable exceptions, any candidate who prevails in these sham elections is likely to be either satisfactory or much different from any other.
If this analysis is wrong, what follows is an improbable solution to a misunderstood problem.
What Would a Workable Strategy for Dealing with This Impasse Look Like?
Voter “Threshold” Standards for Candidates
(1) Proactive Voting
It should not surprise if an unprecedented problem requires an unprecedented solution. Our votes are being disabled by manipulation of the immediately preceding nomination and campaign process; we must, therefore, block this preemption before it occurs by bringing our votes to bear proactively, not only on how the immediately preceding nominations and campaigns are funded, but, equally important, on how they are con-ducted and on the logical validity and clarity of campaign discourse, not on substantive content, which is unavoidably partisan and divisive. Analysis issues. Policies. and progrms are best left other voter organizations.
As far as we can see, reform of election funding, languag, and process can only be done by a coalition of voters who make eligibility to receive their votes in the immediately following election contingent upon the candidate having met these standards in the immediately preceding nomination and election campaigns. Just as campaigning acceptable to responsible voters must begin with the current election process, so the “reward” for compliance with those standards must be paid “C.O.D” in the immediately following election: Not in some remote future of promises, when the damage caused by another sham election has already been done and its causes forgotten.
Each individual Coalition member would be free to vote for any candidate who has met these standards, on whatever substantive grounds she or he judge to be relevant, But all Coalition members must understand that their commitment to sound election process may require them to withhold their votes from a candidate whom they prefer on substantive grounds..
(2) Focus On Campaign Funding, Process, and Form of Discourse: Not Candidates, Substantive Issues, or Content
The immediate goal of ths coalition – The “Process Party” (PP) – would not be to cause some “one best candidate” to be elected or “one best policy” to be adopted, but to create a broad consensus for standards of election process that would raise the level of all candidacies, independently of what policies or values are advocated.
This initial shift in priorities may seem wrong-headed and irresponsible. But if, as we have argued, unacceptable elected officials and policies are ultimately the result of the way mominations and campaigns are funded and conducted and the logical and linguistic form of political discourse, any attempt to reform policy and process concurrently would confound cause and effect, obscure the our purpose, compromise its credibility, fragment its unity, and trivialize its numbers.
Those who deal in sham elections would surely exploit such shortsightedness by making recovery of our preempted election process seem perpetually inexpedient. Fictitious or relatively trivial issues will be represented as having world-shaking importance (while ignoring those that really do); and their solutions to real problems will be touted as so uniquely correct as to justify any source of funding, any distortion or suppression of information, any disingenuous tactic that enables their advocates’ ascent to power.
Reform of our election process will require at least as much insight and discipline as did its systematic corruption. Members must be prepared to resist the delusive zeal which urges that one’s convictions on substantive issues (often fabricated or encouraged because irrelevant) must prevail, here and now, by any means, and at any cost, as though there will never be another election. (See below, page 15, for possible ways to mitigate these costs)
But if we do not enforce these “threshold standards” for acceptable nomination and election process, we will continue to be subjected to a political extortion that deprives us of both valid elections and sound policies.
The “Blush” Rule
These voter standards must, of course, be clear, and compliance must be objectively monitorable. but they must also be such that any candidate or voter who has a cons-cience and common sense (or who wishes to be thought to have them) would blush to oppose (e.g., “I see no reason why, in a purportedly open town hall meeting, I should not be allowed to choose in advance what questions I am to be asked.”) And no appeal to authority or special expertise would be required for voters to understand why the basic standards for candidacy they themselves have specified and monitored are needed and whether they have met.
Such standards can be both non–partisan and multi-partisan because they are not con-cerned with policy or substantive issues, and they can go far toward making political discourse and interaction between candidates and among candidates and voters a serious explorations of the real issues rather than self-serving responses to “coached” questions.
Members would make clear to potental candidates, well before campaign plans and funding commitments have been made, that no candidate who accepts money or its equivalent, directly or indirectly, from any entity other than a “natural person” who is a citizen of the United States or in excess of an amount to be determined by its members will be eligible to receive their votes, regardless of what position the candidate takes on issues. This would include PACS funded or otherwise supported by corporate entities (“Super Packs” and “Citizens United” are discussed below.)
Recall that these funding restriction would not be imposed Constitutionally or legis-latively, but by voters freely acting as private citizens who are free vote or not for whomever they wish, guided by whatever standards they judge appropriate. Thise who are not commmitted to the Process Party coalition may offer candidates what amounts they like and the present laws allow; but complying candidates who wish to be eligible to receive our votes may accept only what they have agreed to accept from those from whom they have agreed to accept it.
If voters are to set appropriate limits to nomination and campaign funding, the power to dominate political use of the media conferred on corporations by the “Citizen’s United” decision must be challenged. Unfortunately, proactive voting cannot motivate a candid- ate to refuse money he or she has not been offered or to take responsibility for views over which he or she can claim no control.
It is even less likely that massive, “uncoordinated” spending by corporations can be blocked by focusing exclusively on a Constitutional Amendments that we ourselves have no power to enact and that would be vigorously resisted by the same corporate funding it is meant to end. But some effective control is possible.
Media “viewership” is independently and accurately monitored electronically and deter-mines advertising revenues. It may be possible to create disincentives to corporate purchases and media sales of political programming by convincing both that these presentations as well as any program pesented in the folllow hour would not be viewed – something over which voters do have direct control. (If unarmed “urban peasants” armed with paving stones can successfully attack French cavalry in Paris in 1789, is it too much to expect educated Americans to initiate something of comparable importance by changing a channel?)
It would be essential, however, that such political ads and presentations not be viewed at all. For, rightly or wrongly, CEOs and their media consultants would be convinced that merely viewing such political ads tends to have the desired effect – whether or not the viewer agrees with the policies and values they (often covertly) advocate.
Whether the number of P.P Coalition members, together with others who support its goals, would be sufficient to make this a practical strategy, at least in the beginning, remains to be seen.
The limitations imposed on candidate behavior and discourse would by themselves tend to blunt the effect of corporate money; and it would be possible to disclose the identity of the corporate funding sources that the current laws allow to be concealed, and to require that candidates whom such “independent” corporate presentations tacitly support to state publicly and clearly which claims or insinuations they do or do not endorse.
Far from compromising the legal restrictions on coordination between candidates and “unconnected” contributors – which are routinely ignored in ways that are impossible to prove — such clarification would show where views do or do not in fact coincide, whether by design or in the normal development of political discourse. At the least, candidates could no longer escape responsibility for what they dare not say themselves by allowing others to say it for them.
These responses and the logical cogency of the media presentations themselves could then be evaluated (See below////.
The super-wealth of real people poses special problems. Great wealth may offer polem-i cal advantages not equaled by judgment or commitment to the common good; and it will probably have been acquired from corporate income and serve corporate interests. But these private contributors are fellow citizens, not legal fictions, and, as the law now stands, such expenditures are Constitutionally protected “freedom of speech.”
The limits on contributions to candidates and parties by individuals might be extended to voters who are contributing to their own campaigns. But such limits, as well as the “no view” media strategy suggested above, may be unacceptable to some potential Coalition members for the reason just given. However, the other strategies for con-trolling corporate abuse of media discussed above would not be found objectionable on these grounds.
The remainder of this essay sketches how The Coalition would be structured and funded, accomplish its ends, and mitigate its most serious problems.
(4) Campaign Process
These standard would apply to the way nomination and campaigns are conducted. (Funding standards were discussed above.) As an example of the need for such standards, consider presidential debates. As they are now staged there purpose is to facilitate the obscurantist tactics of both candidates and to protect the interests of their corporate funders. Serious or otherwise inconvenient issues are suppressed in favor of questions of convenience chosen by, or shown in advance to, the debaters and presented by a representative of the corporate media, whose job is to quiz the candidates – like school boys or school girls – and limit their “talking point” responses to media sound bytes. Carefully chosen standards of format, logic and clarity (See bellow ….) resolutely enforced by votes withheld in the following election can make sham debates politically inexpedient.
Similarly, as town hall meeting are usually conducted, viewers have no way knowing which questions are authentically submitted by unselected participants or of learning anything from the “talking points” which are offered as responses. But it is possible to identify and enforce standards for how town hall meetings are to be structured, who is to participate in them, and for the relevance, logical form, and clarity of the candidates’ responses.
(5) Logical form and clarity of Political Discourse
There is another reason for giving election process initial priority over substantive issues. Without special expertise and considerable leisure, Coalition members (and voters in general) find it impossible to know what the facts and issues really are, let alone which views on complex matters of dispute are reasonable. And members with opposed convictions could hardly be expected to honor each others’ claims to such expertise. This is not flattering to our intellectual self-esteem, but it is an obvious fact and would be so even if experts were not hired at great cost to suppress and distort the reliable information that might otherwise be available to us.
Whether they are PP Coalition members or not, voters would be ill advised, we suggest, to focus exclusively on claims that, as far as they can know, are supported only by the candidate’s desire that they should be believed and an advertising agency’s skill in mak-ing them appear believable.
But objective analysis of the logical form and clarity of a candidate’s political statements temporarily sets aside content and, instead, uses elementary logic to make fallacious arguments and obscure or misleading language evident. This means of disciplining pol-itical discourse requires only what is present within the four corners of a transcript, would be accessible to voters of modest education, and, in the long run, would go a considerable way toward better substantive decisions. When quantified, these analyzes would serve as valid and reliable components of candidate ratings.
(6) How Campaign Events are Structured and Conducted
As example, consider the how structure of debates and the issues debated are now arranged. The are obviously designed to allow crucial issues to be suppressed, and replaced with the issues of convenience that are self-serving trivial or invented as distractions. The opposed candidaate jointely determine in advance what questions will be asked and are then quizzed — like school boys or girls — by a representative of the corporate media, whose job it is to confine “canned” responses to “media bytes” and to see to it that corporate interest are protected.
PP Colition member would specifie standard which will make these abuses impossible, rquire that candiates pledge to observe them, and monitore whether they actually do so.
Similarly, main party candidates would be required to conduct a certain number media events online, where the cost is a small fraction of the price of comercial media time and and will permit third party candidates to participate.
What follows sketches PPCoalition membership and structure.
IV Multi-Partisan Membership
“Multi-Partisan” has been used where “nonpartisan” might be expected in order to stress that there is no political “free lunch;” no “one-party” or “no party” way of maintaining or restoring advanced political institutions. However “worldly wise” a cynical political “realism” may seem, the fact of the matter is that such institutions are only possible if a politically significant number of otherwise partisan voters can agree on the necessity of a valid election process while disagreeing about what its substantive out-comes should be. This consensus constitutes advanced democratic government: Its effective absence is a sham democracy, and acceptance of that sham is a collective failure in human development.
Such a shared commitment is obviously incompatible with an economic model that man- manipulates the political decision-making in the interest of an unrestricted pursuit of wealth. It is one thing to advocate a partisan position through a civilized election process, and quite another to replace a civilized election process with a partisan position. (There are, of course, other, quite different obsessive socioeconomic convictions of which this may also be true, but they are not our present problem.)
Were our deepest convictions and motives known, we might find that our elections are really about whether there will be genuine elections at all. If this is and continues to be the case, there can be no such PP Coalition as the one described – nor, if the present arguments are sound, will there be genuine elections for the foreseeable future.
Until at least one complete election cycle has taught otherwise, neither the major parties nor the CWS is likely to be influenced by future contingent consequences they do not think will occur and do not believe would make any difference if they did occur. They will undoubtedly take the view that no one else will take seriously what they resolutely ignore. (But recall Gandhi’s remark: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”)
Whatever we might wish, if the problem is as described, reform of systemic abuses will be a long-term, incremental goal and, if attained, would have to be maintained. As long as the policies and practices of our economic, political, and media institutions remain what they are, the present political catastrophe will recur if it is not actively prevented. Candidates and not-yet-committed voters must understand that, unlike most reform movements, this Coalition of responsible citizens, its standards, and its disciplined votes are not going to go away. We will be there, and we will do what we have pledged to do.
What we do not control is not ours: All this must be done by voters themselves, acting in multi-partisan solidarity. Success must not depend on the money or expertise of those who have made reform necessary.
The reforms proposed need not all be implemented at the same time or in a set order. This would be a matter of tactics. But funding reform — the need for which is now universally recognized among all who do not profit from the prensent corruption – is an obvious place to start,
That is what is being proposed.
There are two principle obstacles to success: both are are obvious and, as far as we can see, neither has a clearly adequate solution that can be identified in advance.
Limited Potential Membership
The more serious problem is the potential number of voters, drawn from a significantly representative political spectrum, who could plausibly be expected to do the focused thinking required to understand the problem and the proposed solution and could also be relied upon to fulfill their pledge, even if that means withholding their vote from a candidate whom they might otherwise favor on substantive grounds.
The number of voters with the required intellectual and educational resources can be estimated with considerable confidence. (This much “elitism” is unavoidable.) But choices between here-and-now substantive issues and the sound election process needed for better decisions in the future are the “bitter medicine” of election reform, and may well be found unacceptable, even to voters who understand why they are needed. As already emphasized, potential Coalition members must, after serious reflection, be pre-pared to make these anxiety provoking choices.
One possible strategy is a two-tier membership: one comprising members committed to withholding their votes and the other those not yet ready to make that commitment. But if such a classification were adopted it would be essential to distinguish clearly between the two sorts of members when presenting our demands to potential candidates, who will, of course, be motivated only by the certain loss of votes. Anything that blurs this distinction or suggests tepidness in those committed to withholding their votes would be fatal.
It would also be possible to maintain a current computer count of how many registered voters have committed themselves to The Coalition and how many would commit if membership reached a specific number set by each undecided potential; member. It is not implausible that initial commitment would tend rise to the level required in a mutually reinforcing cycle of growing confidence. Of course, we cannot know in advance whether this would occur or what its limits might be; but, surely, a plausible hope is to be preferred to prudent capitulation motivated by fear and guided by lack of information.
“Wasted” Votes” and “Catastrophic Consequences”
The second major problem it is the fear of a “wasted vote” (in this case, a wasted with-held vote) that chronically blocks voter commitment to reform. (Reflection on what our votes, “frugally” spent on largely rhetorical options, have actually produced in the past would, we suggest, be a better reasons for anxiety.) However, Coalition members might agree in advance to release themselves from their obligation should their number fail to reach a certain level by a certain date – a “mutually contingent commitment.”
Such an agreement might also be invoked if our withheld votes would certainly have truly catastrophic consequences (Say, the election of someone credibly committed to nuclear war.) Although that the need for such an expedient is not likely, the circumstances under which it might be invoked must be clearly spelled out in advance. Again, any indefiniteness about honoring our pledges would be fatal.
There is also the important but solvable “problem” of “knowable unknowns.” There are number of critical variables that can only be evaluated by experts (which we certainly are not). For example, how many votes, withheld in the way describe, and how distributed among voters of different parties, would be needed to be taken seriously by candidates deciding on funding sources and campaign strategies and by as yet uncommitted voters. There are no precise answers to such questions; but there are, surely, broadly useful parameters.
Political and demographic analysis, “focus groups,” statistical sampling, and the like, would give us some idea of the range of potential membership. But manipulative appeals base on “marketing” research would undermine reflective decision making; and amassing impressive numbers of uninformed or casually committed signatures would guarantee failure and deepen voters’ sense of futility.
Is It Possible? Is It Probable? Should It Be Attempted? .
Whether these pledges would be taken seriously by the political establishment would depend upon how many and how credible the pledges are; their political heterogeneity; their anticipated importance “at the margin” in any particular election; and their success in raising the general level of media attention and voter expectations. “Third” parties and “lone” candidates would have obvious motives for supporting and, indeed, actively ad-vocating, The Coalition’s goals.
Assuming the problem is as described and that the strategy proposed addresses it coher-ently, it’s possibility is the possibility of a sufficient number of voters – but only voters – deciding to make it possible.
We are often told that the success of some attempt at political reform is “up to” us; but, in fact, it seldom is. Typically, we are asked to devote substantial money, time, and energy to a reform party or candidate or to the enactment of a law which would necessitate persuading office holders to do what they perceive as opposed to their interest and we have no effective means of compelling them to do, and would not, even in theory, have the result intended.
In the strategy being proposed, however, a PPCoalition member would be asked do nothing he or she would not otherwise do – go to the polls and vote – except to announce well before-hand under what conditions candidates will be eligible be to receive that vote – con-ditions that have nothing to do with substantive issues. Credibility among candidates and increased participation by voters will depend upon repeated observation that those who make this pledge will do what they have pledged themselves to do.
Granted The Bare Possibility of Success, How Likely Is It to Succeed?
Even we are not optimistic. It would certainly be unprecedented for such a strategy to be adopted and carried out by a sufficiently large number of voters over a sufficiently long period of time. But whether it should be attempted, is another question. It is essential to consider whether there are known alternatives that, given the nature of the problem, can be shown to be more likely to succeed, and to weigh the cost of failure against the con-sequences of allowing things to continue as they are.
If there are no such alternatives and if the current situation is unacceptable, then, to adapt Lord Bacon’s counsel, it would be folly to suppose that what cannot otherwise be done can be done except by wisely employing the only means remaining.
(2017; Beginiing of Mr. Trump’s Presidency )
Has This Proposal Been “Trumped”?
No, but it may have been “finessed.” An essential assumption – and one which, at least until recently, was substantially sup- ported by what was actually happening – was that those who are preempting our election process are at least prudent businessmen and professional politicians. In their judgment, we assumed, the votes of extremist and the easily delude of various kinds are needed; but such voters themselves must not be allowed to shape real policy or determine either party’s real identity: that is to be left to cooler and wiser heads of the CWS and both major parties.
After all, it is only common sense to prefer handsome, reliable profits to returns that are as speculative as they would be spectacular. Nor would it be thought prudent to insist on a total political victory that would make evident to voters what they are really voting for and leave the CWS to guess what will happen next. Two manageable parties whose differences are largely rhetorical are much to be preferred.
Which brings us to President Trump. Obviously, we over-estimated the ability of the CWS to control the more radical mega-super-rich, at least under the special circumstance that prevailed at the time – circumstances which are not yet adequately understood.
From the point of view of the political-corporate-financial establishment as described in this essay, the problem with our new President is that he is unpredictable, unmanageable, and un-replicable (the first two of which were probably the perceived qualities that got him elected). To certain kinds of “rogue” candidates, perpetuation of two apparently different parties, each hedging the other, and a willingness to accept stable, long term control rather than risk a failed attempt at a consummate victory will seem halfhearted, almost – one tempted to say – “bourgeois. “
If cash had come to counting, Mr. Trump and his few mega-super-wealthy friends could have financed a successful campaign without help from either major party. Such a can-didate would not appreciate the need for a more subtle, complexly organized “virtual” reality, and may raise some issue or blurt out some fact that the CWS has spent a fortune to conceal or distort. (If we were the political–financial establishment, we would do everything we could to make Mr. Trump’s presidency as short and as sane as possible and return to the status quo described.)
But as they say on Wall Street, the situation is “volatile.” It is even imaginable that the display of the raw, unmanageable power of immense wealth in the hands a very few eccentrics may cause even the CWS to discern some merit in campaign funding reform. But if there is any future election process to be reformed, it will probably be like, or the attempt will be made to make it like, what we have described.
Should we wait to find out? Something very much like The PP Coalition would be essential in a capitalist democracy in any case, and would be less difficult to achieve than capit-alism to remove, even if everyone who wanted a free and informed election process also wanted to remove capitalism.
GPH, for Votestand. (Orig, Vers. 2012)