Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Threats to democracy, real and imagined

Events in Washington have a way of colliding unexpectedly, laying bare the vapid emptiness of stock political rhetoric. Recent Congressional hearings demonstrate this axiom.   

First came Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid somberly testifying before the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Reid espoused the evils upon us all from big and dark money infiltrating the American political system. And of course he named names in case anyone doubted his villains’ identities.   

Mr. Reid’s arguments are familiar to even the casual observer of the politics of political money. Indeed his testimony merely amplified the cottage industry refrains of politicians, nonprofit groups, and academics that raise money and wield political influence decrying how others raise money and wield political influence. 

Plutocrats, these “reformers” counsel—unsatisfied with their already enormous wealth—are trying to “buy” America and “drown out” the voice of the little guy. Money buys “access” and “undue influence,” corrupting the system and threating the very foundation of democracy. Indeed so dire the threat, it can only be remedied by overturning a key a portion of the Bill of Rights—an unprecedented move according to famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams who testified at the same hearing.  

Mr. Reid is, of course, wrong. Money does factor into electoral and legislative outcomes, but it is far from the determining or even most important factor. And proof is more abundant than a recent Virginia primary where the loser outspent his opponent 26-1. In 2012, only 20% of competitive Senate campaigns with an overall spending advantage won. The latest social science bolsters this thesis, a fact acknowledged from as diverse sources as former Obama White House Counsel Bob Bauer and the First Amendment friendly Center for Competitive Politics

But unlike Mr. Reid’s empirically challenged posturing, genuine threats to the American political system exist. IRS Commissioner Jack Koskinen recently exemplified one in Congressional testimony about missing documents House investigators had subpoenaed months ago. Mr. Koskinen sat defiant as he ducked, parried, and obfuscated. His answers, and the arrogance with which he conveyed them, are emblematic of a bureaucracy whose dual mission is self-preservation and the ardor for power; what Peggy Noonan called “the ongoing shakedown operation that is the relationship of the individual and the federal government.”

No one versed in the economic theory of public choice would be surprised at IRS bad faith. The theory states government actors, like private ones, make decisions based on self-interest before public benefit or certainly altruism. Instead of profit motive, their currency is expanding the regulatory domain. But what (allegedly) happened at the IRS is worse than bureaucrats looking out for number one. It is the systematic targeting of a president’s political enemies, base disregard of Supreme Court holdings, and the widespread circumvention of federal law in the cover up. And all of this accepts that no one at the White House was involved, a perhaps unlikely scenario considering key IRS figures Sarah Ingram and Nikole Flax were frequent White House visitors. 

If proven true, this Latin American-esque disregard for the rule of law would truly threaten the democratic process and likely cause Americans to lose faith in federal political institutions. 

Indeed Americans already sense something is fundamentally wrong. Poll results are welcomingly bipartisan. Only 11% of independents and 20% of Democrats find plausible the IRS explanation that subpoenaed materials accidently disappeared into an unrecoverable internet ether for seven different people. 

This lack of trust is justified. The IRS has repeatedly lied its way through the scandal from the original whopper about rouge Cincinnati employees to its repeated stance that officials would turn over all emails only to finally be told they had only been turning over those that matched certain internally decided search terms

As trust in government institutions continues to plummet, the sad reality is real threats to democracy get treated as temporary “controversies.” Meanwhile excuses to give a government no one seems to trust more power and opportunity for abuse are treated as “solutions.” Such is the political world circa 2014. 

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