Reform-minded people working to sever the corrupting influence of money in politics have had a rough few weeks. First came the collapse of Americans Elect as a platform by which a reform-minded candidate could get their message heard; followed shortly thereafter by the suspension of Buddy Roemer’s candidacy for president. Combined, these losses mean the existing power structure will go largely unchallenged in this year’s presidential election.
Despite this setback, no one should hang their head or despair for the long-term prospects of fixing our broken system. Gaining traction in 2012 was always going to be a tough row to hoe; but the seeds planted this election season will bear fruit in 2014 and beyond.
There were two steep challenges facing any efforts at reform this year: The dynamics of presidential election cycles and inertia.
Presidential elections suck up vast amounts of oxygen in terms of interest/relevance with both the media and the voting public. In addition, most voters still cling to the belief – justifiably or not – that their vote matters in a system completely dominated from start to finish by special interests. Perhaps most importantly, in presidential elections voters turn to familiar parties and their hyper-partisan framing of issues because they are motivated to defeat the evil hordes of the opposing party. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to advocate for the sort of necessary structural reforms that require support and cooperation from voters across the political divide.
Of course the media influences public perception about what is and isn’t possible, and who is or isn’t electable; a fact Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer both found out the hard way. Each failed to earn a spot on the main stage due to a variety of factors (some of their own making), but one significant commonality was that both were marginalized by a media either controlled or compliant to powerful special interests.
Additionally, because the presidential contest so thoroughly dominates, reformers must battle congressional, state and local candidates for the scraps of attention not focused on the main prize. The small amount garnered wasn’t enough to propel either Americans Elect or Roemer past the obstacles special interests (mostly via a compliant government and media) have erected.
It is no coincidence that the Occupy movement was able to capture the national conversation in an off-election year; or that the Tea Party’s spectacular success came in a non-presidential cycle. How much attention is paid to either movement these days? Is either having similar levels of success in getting their message out or influencing the outcomes of elections this year?
The net result of course is that no matter who wins in November, we will have elected a president who is extremely sympathetic to the special interests who financed his campaign. In the meantime, lacking a candidate championing reform, this election will continue to focus on the same hollow partisan debate that rarely leads to resolution. Rather, it diverts people’s attention away from the true source of their problems; while masking the reason why government is incapable of solving any of them.
Yet positive developments abound. Both Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer brought much-needed attention to the issue of a broken system and the root causes behind it. People on every side of the political divide are awakening to the underlying problems within our system; while the nascent effort to enact a constitutional amendment to root out corruption further raises the issue’s profile. Yet still, we remain at the point where the vast majority of voters will not act until their lives have been affected in a significantly adverse way; and even then reluctantly. Only when things reach a critical mass and a viable solution has gained broad acceptance, will that tipping point arrive.
A presidential election year is a great time to talk about these issues because average voters are paying more attention than normal. However, continued belief in our failing institutions also means that a conflicting message – of a broken system – which potentially undermines that belief, might face a less than receptive audience in the short-term. This is a great year for sowing, but not so much for reaping.
For now we should continue to support candidates at all levels who support fixing the corrupt system of pay-to-play government. When the election passes and the political campaigns end, the campaign to spread this message to voters should not.
Over time, the more this message is repeated, the likelier voters will blame money in politics for (what is likely to be) an extremely ugly election. Prospects for reform also increase incrementally every time voters hear that reforming a broken system engenders better solutions on the issues they value most – education, economy, defense, health care and more. The greater the body of evidence presented to voters consistently over time, the greater the likelihood the issue of money and influence in politics becomes THE central issue in the 2014 election cycle.
Success will not occur overnight, but a quietly growing consensus means it could come sooner than many think. In the meantime, the focus should be to continue to plant the seeds which will pay dividends come the reaping…and to have ready a solution worthy of that moment when it arrives.