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Influence, Access, and Representation

One of the books I regularly ask my students to read is a slim volume by one of the founding generation in the academic study of politics in the U.S.  It’s a book called The Semi-Sovereign People by E.E. Schattschneider, published originally in 1960 near the end of his career.  In it, he lays out a picture of the “pressure system” in order to get a handle on how our political system deals with conflict and how our leaders make the myriad decisions that face them every day.  He concludes, after exploring the ways opposing interests create accommodation in politics, that

“the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.”  

The interests that are generally represented in our public decision making are those that are resourced with the kind of representational multipliers I discussed in my first essay; money, yes, but also time, education, and association networks.  Voices of the average citizen are crowded out by the activities of people, organizations, and businesses with the money and access to not only make their preferences heard, but to drown out the preferences of the other side.  Schattschneider’s 60-year old observations and elegant explanations are even more relevant today. 

The danger posed by these representational inequalities is the core challenge of this month’s conversation topic, the role of money and special interests in American politics.  If we are all indeed created equal in the eyes of the law, as the Declaration states, then a system that privileges the voices of the resourced is a significant problem for the proper working of democracy.  As a Christian living within this democratic system, I think the call to love my neighbor means both acting justly towards them by helping them exercise their voices, but also seeking to change political systems that make it hard for them to speak.  Love and justice are themes at the heart of the gospel, and it is hard to do one with doing the other as well. 

Because of this, I would ask Mr. Hill to think more specifically about the role systemic injustice may play in our current system of money and interest representation.  His argument about choice and non-coercion assumes a system already in place to punish people who cross the line.  But I think that the system itself is making it very difficult for citizens to exercise their rights.  Citizens need to have equal access to those rights, and I judge that that is not now the case because of the impact of money and special interests on decision-makers’ agenda and opinions.

Democratic citizens cannot separate themselves from “the system.” We are the system, we designed it, and we are the ones who make it up.  So, as democratic citizens we are responsible for how the system itself impacts political equality, and as Christians we are responsible to hold a system accountable when it does not serve the interests of the poor and marginalized. 

The problem with special interests – ANY special interests

It is important to point out that my concern isn’t whether these are good interests or whether I agree with them.  My concern is that their influence is so pervasive and ubiquitous that the voices of most ordinary citizens are crowded out.  Representing one’s interest in politics isn’t bad, but like so many other things, it has to be balanced with the needs of a good society.  No one interest should be able to dominate the conversation or decision-making based on their overwhelming access to resources.  In those scenarios we all lose. Political equality is only the most important of the democratic values such dominance threatens.

Furthermore, much of the impact of special interests takes place outside of the view of the average citizen, even outside the view of citizens’ elected representatives. Significant parts of lobbying and interest group activity take place not simply in the realm of agency regulations – a murky geography in itself – but in the attempt to get individual regulatory waivers, an even more obscure part of the process.  Schattschneider calls this the “privatization of interests.”  It always behooves people with money and power to pull their conflicts out of the public’s eye.  They have a much better chance at being able satisfy their private need if other citizens’ needs do not have to be taken into account.  This is the crux of the problem with money and special interests, and why it cannot be solved simply with disclosure or with increased voter participation.  

Voting and its discontents

Mr. Hill suggests that the real problem with unequal representation is low voter turnout.  I disagree for several reasons. Voting is a blunt instrument; citizens get to choose representatives but not the actual issue and policy positions they espouse.  In fact, citizens don’t even really get to choose representatives, that choice is already structured by elites in the form of political parties and the state laws that enshrine the two major parties in power.  So true and robust representation in our system has to seek avenues beyond voting.  Even with 100% voter turnout, this challenge would remain. That’s why people try to influence decision-makers in ways beyond the ballot box

Relying on voter turnout to solve representational inequalities is also problematic because so many of those inequalities are compounded in the administration of voting.  As I explain in an essay for the Public Justice Review

“This happens in a variety of ways: by the passage of laws requiring voter identification beyond that provided by registration, by voter registration list purges, and by the reduction in the number of voting locations or methods. The best research on the subject suggests that not only does it disproportionally impact the poor, and African-Americans and Hispanics, but that the laws, in their “proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” All of these efforts are taking place in states across the country, though they are more prevalent in states with higher numbers of racial and ethnic minorities.  Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, seven have passed laws to create new restrictions.” 

The upper class accent extends to the interest groups and organizations who lobby at the state and local level for restrictions on voting rights.

Campaign contributions and access to decision-makers

Decades of scholarly research demonstrates the impact of money on political access. It may certainly be the case that the people Mr. Hill has worked for were paying attention to the marginalized among their constituents, but the preponderance of evidence is that members of Congress are listening more closely to those that give them money.  Campaign donations buy access and attention.  This is seen not only in individual decision-makers, but in the larger scope of issues considered by Congress and the executive branch.  Even when clear opinion exists among voters, there are issues and policies that are never discussed because resourced interests want to preserve the status quo.  This is made most clear by the K-street project mentioned in my mid-month essay and the impact of its pay-to-play mentality on the influence system.  The party in power won’t even listen until a lobbyist has demonstrated their loyalty through campaign contributions.

Political polarization makes the stakes of that unbalanced influence even higher.  Both parties and both sides of the ideological divide look not to find common ground, but to prevent the other side from even existing.  The ability of money and lobbyists to crowd out average voters’ voices makes this possibility even more stark.

Corporate persons

One other point I want to clarify is that I don’t think people lose their ability to join the political conversation just because they work for or own a large corporation.  I think that corporations shouldn’t have the same political rights as individual citizens.  Corporations are made up of people who all bring their individual rights with them.  These organizations may be more than the sum of their parts in the economic sphere, but our political system does not recognize organizations of any type for representational purposes.  No entities other than individuals and states have political standing in our system. 

Other democracies have explicit representation of business within their representative and executive systems.  We do not. Treating corporations as individuals with free speech rights introduces special “super actors” into our representation system that have an unfair advantage in the influence system.  Can and should CEOs and the people who work for businesses advocate for that business’ interests? Absolutely; they can use their individual rights to advocate for that purpose or any other.  But businesses should not have explicit standing to claim political rights.  Individual citizens vote, not organizations, not labor unions, and not businesses.

On liberty and equality...

The role of money and special interests in American politics is not an easy issue.  It brings to the fore some of the thorniest conflicts that exist at the core of the American project.  Many of the debates over principles and policies in the last 250 years have come down to the question of how much equality are we willing to give up to be free? And how much freedom are we willing to give up to be equal?

I wish that Micah Watson and Julia Stronk’s conversations about speech, freedom, and marginalization could have continued because I think that issue really underlies this conversation about money and special interests in politics.  Given their opening remarks, I suspect that they would have eventually talked about the subject of rights.  Who has the right to speak and what speech has the right to exist in a free society? In many cases, arguments in favor of unregulated money and lobbying in our system hinge on such rights claims.  The Supreme Court’s rulings on campaign finance over the past 40 years have largely enshrined the notion that money is equivalent to speech and neither can significantly regulated.

But we ask our government to impinge on individual rights all the time in order to protect the larger society or the rights of another individual.  My primary argument is that ensuring political equality is part of that mandate.  The government enforces laws against monopolies in business because lack of economic competition is detrimental to the welfare of individual citizens and their finances.  Our system reinforces some values and discourages others in all areas of our communal life. We want this system, one we’ve built and designed to be responsive to citizens, to protect us from other people’s drive to use their rights to the detriment of others. 

….and love

I think it is correct to say that most conversations concerning politics are about winning, or getting a point across, or achieving an outcome; they aren’t about loving our neighbors and fellow citizens.  This is where I think Christians have a particular responsibility and a particular contribution to conversations about not just money and special interests but about all realms of our political life.  Our goal in politics should be not only to get to good policy outcomes, but to get there in the right way.  A way that values others above ourselves and takes seriously the notion of a truly common good.  This intention takes on particular import in a democracy, where our individual choices matter and where we, at least in principal, have the power and responsibility to govern ourselves.

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