Money & Politics: The System is Broken

We are living in the middle of the Second Gilded Age. The American political system needs major reform to cope with the malign impact of elite economic interests on both electoral outcomes and the policies that our elected officials enact (or fail to enact). We need another Progressive Movement that cuts across partisan lines to push for the structural reform that is essential to re-democratizing our elections so that we can elect better men and women and allow them to more easily do what they think is right when in office. To achieve this, we need an educated public that presses for such reforms. Catholics who believe in Catholic social teaching should be key players in this push to rid our politics of the poison that is plutocracy in order to protect the dignity of all and advance the common good.

This topic—Money & Politics: Is Washington for Sale?—was recently addressed at a conference sponsored by the Franciscan Action Network (FAN) and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPR), where I am a graduate fellow. While some responded with a more definitive and unequivocal “Yes!” to the question at hand than others, there was a strong consensus that economic elites have a disproportionate and unjust impact on American politics. IPR Director Stephen Schneck contrasted the ideals of democracy with “the extraordinarily unfair influence of money” in our political system. He explained that while religions are about the common good, a politics of money is a politics of self-interest. The two cannot be reconciled.

Kathy Saile of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained the right and corresponding duty to participate in society and contribute to the common good. But participation is thwarted when those with money dominate the political system. The rights of the average citizen are violated when their voice is drowned out by the sound of the rich cutting checks for political candidates. Aaron Scherb of Common Cause argued that the ultra-wealthy are trying to turn American politics into a spectator sport. And too often, they are the only ones getting elected to office these days. Aura Kanegis of the American Friends Service Committee explained that people at the grassroots level are getting more cynical about politics. And as Rev. Stacy Martin said, “Even a benign oligarchy is an oligarchy.”

Scherb noted that while quid pro quo corruption is relatively rare, it still has a corrosive impact. It shapes what is on the agenda. It gives those who donate large sums greater access and influence. Scherb cited a Senator who said that he would not call anyone who gave him less than $100. And even college students who aspire to public office begin to take political positions that will help their future electoral prospects—those shared by economic elites—rather than focusing on those that might best serve the common good.

Patrick Carolan of FAN described how nearly every political issue is affected by the money in politics, from immigration reform to climate change to countless others. He put the impact in stark terms, saying that we see more people at soup kitchens and deported back to Central America to die from the violence they attempted to escape because of these policies, which have been shaped by economic elites. Stacy Martin agreed, arguing that people on the margins are the ones who are most harmed by the status quo.

Catholic University professor William Barbieri rightly noted that money has fueled partisanship. It has also fueled ideological polarization. The inability of Congress to seriously address the most pressing issues this country faces is in part because of the distorting impact of money. Politicians can no longer find a middle ground and they are punished for seeking it.

What can be done to reinvigorate democracy in the US? A number of possibilities were mentioned. Scherb spoke about same day voter registration, having Election Day as a national holiday, and making absentee voting easier. Craig Holman of Public Citizen said the most direct way is to pass a constitutional amendment that would no longer allow the Supreme Court to overturn restrictions on campaign donations. Measures could perhaps be enacted to ensure greater transparency.

The success of a democracy is tied to the strength of its middle class. When inequality skyrockets, it is not simply a threat to economic justice, but the stability and efficacy of free and democratic institutions. These institutions must not become outdated—left unable to cope with changing economic circumstances or reinforcing the injustices they are designed to resolve. This is the threat we face today. For those who want progressive policy changes, these structural reforms cannot be overlooked. And for true conservatives—those who wish to preserve that which is good—we have reached a moment where the right kind of reform is essential for preserving our values and the form of government we so rightly hold dear.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

A Nation of Takers? by Nicholas Kristof: “However imperfectly, subsidies for the poor do actually reduce hunger, ease suffering and create opportunity, while subsidies for the rich result in more private jets and yachts. Would we rather subsidize opportunity or yachts? Which kind of subsidies deserve more scrutiny?”

The pope’s message to the president by EJ Dionne: “But the pope’s main job is to pose a radical challenge to our complacency and social indifference. In doing so, he should stir an uneasiness that compels all of us — and that includes Obama — to examine our consciences.”

There are many reasons why Assad is stronger than ever by Michael Young: “A closely-related strategy pursued by the Assad regime has been to allow religious or political extremism to proliferate, in such a way as to portray itself as a foe of the extremists. This it has done in the Syrian conflict, releasing jihadists from prison, putting much less military pressure on them than on the more moderate opposition, and allowing them to control oil-rich areas to finance themselves. The objective has, again, been two-fold: to create dissension within opposition ranks and provoke conflict between opposition groups; and to entice Western public opinion into believing the Al Assads are a barrier against extremism, therefore should not be overthrown.”

Three refreshing gifts of Lent by Robert J. Wicks: “Don’t miss this Lent. Greater inner freedom, a richer sense of compassion, and a deeper sense of our relationship with God are waiting.”

Smuggled, Trafficked, Violated by Nicholas Sawicki: “Whether they’re sold as child sex slaves, harvested for organs, or forced into farm labor, the denial of  the basic human right to freedom for millions is a sad reality that our society has to deal with today.”

Closed City by John Carr: “Washington is not corrupted by secret gifts, but by the legal purchase of access and influence that come with endless fundraising and politics as usual.”

Burma’s Muslims Are Facing Incredibly Harsh Curbs on Marriage, Childbirth and Religion by Time: “Proposed regulations will restrict religious conversions, make it illegal for Buddhist women to marry Muslim men, place limits on the number of children Muslims can have and outlaw polygamy, which is permitted in Islam. More than 1.3 million signatures have reportedly been gathered in support of this plan, which is spearheaded by a group of extremist Buddhist monks and their lay supporters.”

Ukrainian Catholics flee Crimea to escape threats of arrest by CNS: “Members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church are fleeing Crimea to escape threats of arrest and property seizures, a priest told Catholic News Service just four days after Russia finalized the region’s annexation.”

Political skills for divine purposes by Michael Gerson: “Francis has a feel for powerful symbols of simplicity, humility and compassion, such as carrying his own suitcase, washing the feet of Muslim prisoners, inviting the homeless to his birthday party, touching the disfigured. In this case, old Coke is pretty old — the example of a wandering preacher who touched lepers and consorted with a variety of sinners and outcasts. As in that ancient example, Francis has combined traditional moral teachings with a scandalous belief that people are ultimately more important than rules.”

Under a Barrel by Lama Fakih: “These unguided, high-explosive bombs — which are cheaply produced locally and filled with explosives, scrap metal, nails, or other material to enhance fragmentation — are pushed out of helicopters, dropped on densely populated areas by the Syrian army. Used in this way, the bombs are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants, making the attacks unlawful under international humanitarian law.”

The Very Real Prospect of Genocide in Burma by Romeo Dallaire: “The international community must take early preventive action now in order to reverse Burma’s current trend towards catastrophe and possibly genocide.”

Shadowed by Tragedy by Kerry Weber: “Rwanda is a country that longs to be known for something other than the genocide, and over the past 20 years, the nation’s government has worked hard to replace that reputation with a more positive one. In many ways, it has succeeded. Rwanda has made dramatic advances and now ranks among the cleanest, safest and least corrupt countries in Africa. Yet its deepest wound is one that cannot be healed by superficial changes.”