Primary school government classes in the United States explain the ideals of representative government—that our democracy supports the election of (often ordinary) people who then keep access open to their constituents so that the needs in their local districts and states will have a voice in the voting body. Unfortunately, in many districts, this is not really how elections and governing operate anymore. Consider:
Congressional elections averaged $1.4M for House elections in 2010 and and more than $1.5M in 2012. Senate races averaged nearly $9M in 2010 and more than $10.3M in 2012. The total cost for all congressional races for the 2014 midterm elections is estimated to run $3.5B. That’s billion. These extreme costs narrow the possibilities of who can run for seats, limiting elections to well networked or party-sponsored individuals, the independently wealthy, or people running on a cause that garners a lot of grassroots support. (See Table at the right.)
- The Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United has put a lot more money from organizations and corporations into elections, even local-level campaigns. Between 527 groups, PACs and SuperPACs, even small congressional districts see a lot of monetary input, often from groups outside of the state or district in contest. If candidate fundraising doesn’t come from kissing babies and shaking constituents’ hands anymore, then…
- Issues taken up by office holders may reflect the priorities of big donors and organizations rather than the general public. At the least there is evidence that so much corporate money spent in SuperPACs has been used to wage negative campaigns against the presumed opponent (SuperPACs are not allowed to raise money for a particular candidate). Thus candidates now must raise money to get their messages out and to defend against the negative campaigns from 527s and SuperPACs (hence the rapid rise in average campaign costs).
If we’re getting a narrow band of very privileged people running for the highest offices in the land who often owe their victories to organizations rather than (or solely due to) through their own campaign managers, we may be looking at the new territory of governing wherein those same funders to 527 groups and SuperPACs look to craft template legislation that can be taken up at the state or congressional level. Take, for example, ALEC—The American Legislative Exchange Council, begun by one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation. Americans don’t argue about reproductive rights, voting rights, or gun control in a vacuum; these become national problem spaces because of how ALEC has pushed their agenda in a systematic way.
Looking at voting rights, for example, we saw after the 2010 midterm elections a push in 37 states, comprising more than 60 bills to restrict voters’ rights in some way, often using the rhetoric of fraud, and often involving an attempt to require photo identification to get to the voting booth. Other bills took away voting rights forever after a felony conviction (such rights are usually restored after release and/or a probationary period), or mandated that voters without a photo ID only be able to cast provisional ballots that may never be counted in an election. Still more voting right bills tried to chip away at or deter people from the convenience of using the “Motor Voter” law that lets individuals register to vote at their local DMV.
Progressives decried these laws in some of the debates as working to minimize the more Democratic Party-aligned voters, who are often poorer, or who may have trouble getting a valid photo ID. One Pennsylvania woman was granted an exception to vote even though she was old enough that she’d never been given a birth certificate, but only a flurry of media attention got the state to grant her that exception. But while we paid attention to Ms. Applewhite’s plight, Kansas passed some of the most restrictive requirements in the nation, decrying that officials needed to safeguard the process against undocumented people voting illegally, despite scant evidence it had ever happened in their state.
Turns out, nearly all of the bills came from a “model” voter ID bill proposed by ALEC in 2009. Think it’s a coincidence that so many of the most recent laws to suppress abortion rights are about implanting [sic] unnecessary requirements on abortion-providing facilities and personnel? It’s another ALEC project. Do bills that have been proposed across the country designed to send public education funding to private and religious schools sound similar? They should. They are based on another ALEC model bill.
In other words, much of the debate around funding and appropriations, as well as hot-button social issues and the supreme act of democracy are now being prioritized by ALEC. This turns government away from using national needs, trends, or global diplomacy for its legislative agenda. While other countries have found ways to offer health insurance for all of their citizens and residents, we are still arguing it’s an impossibility without descending into socialism. While other countries come up with innovative solutions to pay for education for its next generation of workers and thinkers, we debate whether we need public education at all. Pulling back from the government’s commitments to the general public in the guise that it has grown “too big,” has created large pockets of inequality and unrest, and loads of fear. So it is in that context that I argue that the entire idea of “Stand Your Ground” is suspect.
More on that in the next post.