We are broken. The convergence of power politics and mega money has created a murky underground river that threatens the foundation of our public life. Locked in a death dance, politicians and their propertied patrons have waltzed us all to the brink of catastrophe as the interests of the few trumped those of the rest of us.
This is the bottom line: The greatest impediment to effective, responsive-in other words, good-government today is the method by which political campaigns are financed. Having obtained office in a system which makes them dependent upon contributions of those at the top of the economic food chain, legislators and elected executives, ever aware of the inexorable march towards the next election cycle, govern accordingly. Consider the results.
Our tax money bails out billionaires whose hubris produced the current economic wreckage; pays contractors millions for shoddy, sub par work that has endangered our troops; provides protection for auto makers who put on blinders and continued to produce outsized gas guzzlers long after demand had taken root for more fuel-efficient cars.
Meanwhile, cash poor states cut funding for education; returning vets fail to receive basic health care and life-saving counseling; breadwinners lose jobs and families, homes.
What kind of government is this?
I began life-adult life, that is-as a political science major, and as I’ve watched this carnage, a term much discussed during my college days persistently springs to mind. That term is enlightened self-interest, a phrase used by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian, as he analyzed the American political system in the first half of the 19th century. Little of our recent history seems enlightened to me.
In his two-volume work, Democracy in America, de Tocqueville observed:
“The Americans . . .are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood . . . an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property . . . The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial.”
Then speaking directly to his fellow Frenchmen, he goes on, “I do not think, on the whole, that there is more selfishness among us than in America; the only difference is that there it is enlightened, here it is not. Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest . . .”
That was then. This is now.
Economists tell us the big-money bailout was needed to save all of us from ruin and I don’t argue with that, but the conditions which made that bailout necessary never should have developed to begin with. Lax regulation and failed oversight of those whose contributions were so beneficial to our elected “public servants” allowed this disaster to occur. Unbridled corporate greed, overpriced houses, misrepresented mortgages, usurious credit card charges, an ill-advised war of aggression? How could anyone believe this was sustainable?
In my work as a psychotherapist, I often remind clients they need to take control of their own lives. Now, as a body politic, we need to take control of our own public life. This is not a partisan issue. It’s a societal, quality-of-life issue. Correcting it won’t be easy. To our discredit, we’ve allowed the system to become the province of big money and legislators to become pawns in a modern feudalism.
To ask those in office, those who represent us (“we, the people,” remember?) to create a system which will deny them millions in campaign coffers is to expect much. We must expect it, nonetheless.
Whether we should institute reform by creating a system of public financing-which, done right, would cost us less than government by cronyism-or through an airtight system of regulation involving both truth and consequences, I don’t know, but we must demand reform which . . .
limits the entities candidates can create for the purpose of receiving money and funding campaigns
allows contributions only from individuals, with limits on the amount each can give
forbids contributions or perks from lobbyists, businesses, professional associations, or other organizations
regulates legislators’ employment by lobbies or businesses doing business with the government for a specified period of time after the legislator leaves office
monitors compliance with all regulations, and
provides for regular review and the creation of additional regulations if needed to ensure the independence of those elected to office.
Our responsibilities as voters have never been more crucial; our access to information, never greater; our excuses for not being informed and involved, never weaker. As we monitor what our legislators do on health care, the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration, and the myriad other issues that affect us all, we need to monitor first and foremost what they’re doing to reform the broken system in which they came to power.
It won’t be easy, but only with our insistence-and our votes-can we break the stranglehold of money. Doing so will free elected and electorate alike.
Yes, we can! And yes, we must!
Marj Frazer Lacey is a therapist who writes primarily on mental health issues facing individuals and families today. Her book, It’s Not a Life Sentence, is a personalized guide to re-thinking your priorities and goals and discovering your own authentic core during this time of often overwhelming pressure and confusion. Excerpts from her book may be viewed at http://marjfrazerlacey.com