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Voters’ Zero-Sum Faceoff with Wealthy Campaign Donors

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It’s a national pastime for voters to badmouth any given elected official from the comfort of their disengaged and isolated perches. While most citizens gripe about politicians or the system for operating beyond their influence, do any voters understand the how and why of elite interests wielding far greater force?

Recently I received emails from two members of Congress informing me of an important fund raising deadline.  During any given election cycle the Federal Election Commission periodically requires candidates and political action committees alike to report their fund raising results. The donation appeals sent to my inbox represented the exact same party-related political action committee. Each letter urged a contribution before the Aug. 31 deadline, to meet a specified fund-raising goal. Doing so would enable said PAC a show of party strength or, as one letter boldly stated, “to take this fight to” the opposing party in each district.

Such letters, perhaps one of hundreds that get mailed out each month, do not mean much in and of themselves. As a cog in the machinery of mega dollar campaign financing, however, the letters represent a failure on the part of vote-eligible citizens. The shortcoming is twofold: first is the well known indifference of that 40 per cent of voters who opt not to show up at the polls every election; second, and perhaps more crucial, is the group of voters who do participate, but take little notice of how candidates finance their campaigns or who contributes to them.

At this point, voters find themselves on the losing end of the bargain known as representative democracy. It adds up to a zero-sum faceoff with wealthy donors. Why? Because voters have not shown the initiative nor interest that offsets a campaign’s need for large dollar donations; the kind of contributions that finance the television ads produced to manipulate underinformed citizens. Also on the campaign tab is the army of pollsters and analysts sifting surveys and focus groups for a candidate’s penny ante political advantage.

The way torrents of cash saturate political campaigns, the most accountability can hope to achieve is talking point status. What often looks like wilful passivity on the part of voters enables a breach between what the electorate intends and what the highest bids for influence actually achieve.

Here lies the influence gap that privileges corporations and monied interests over everyone else. If you don’t believe this gap is a meaningful factor in the poor representation we endure today, let’s have a look at an interview snippet quoting Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) in his district’s newspaper, The Birmingham News. The occasion for the Dec. 8, 2010 conversation was his appointment as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated,” the congressman pontificated, “and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

Who can deny that the banks have been well represented by Bachus’ persuasion? Given the generosity they have shown his campaign budget, who could expect the chairman to raise a fuss about trifles like predatory lending and robo-signing? When the committee he chairs isn’t busy attempting to dismantle the modest transparency requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act, it is marking time while the usual suspects from the financial services continue business as usual.

This nation is three years into a financial calamity that anyone has yet to see the end of. Home foreclosures and chronic employment continue not only to  eat away at our national solvency, but also to undermine the mutual full faith and credit Americans once possessed.

If this state of affairs received serious consideration, blunt honesty would require us to admit that we have the kind of government we deserve. As we have yet to produce a voter turnout that demands fair, unbiased representation, we, the people, will continue sending the likes of Spencer Bachus to Washington every election.

Indifference has already exacted a harrowing price in the diminished quality of life with which most of us must cope . So, consider this question a modest proposal: if it’s within the electorate’s capacity to avoid selecting convicted felons or pederasts for public office, why not strive to restore our leadership’s accountability to the greater whole of this country?

Begin by paying attention to the who, what, why and how of governing. Special interests already deploy a battalion of lobbyists and insiders with the right access to elected officials, so voters will have to exert an equally coordinated and engaged effort. Then they will be in a position to avoid candidates who’ve sold away their decision making responsibility, and instead, support candidates who are accountable to all citizens.

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