Kleptocracy Kills Democracy

In his 1796 farewell address to the nation at the end of his second term as President, George Washington spoke out against what he saw as the evils of political parties. His conviction was that parties, in their continuous quest for power, would increasingly seek revenge on their opponents and, as he put it, “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security...in the absolute power of an individual”. They would pit groups of people against one another, raise false alarms and (presciently) provide foreign nations with a means of access to the government. 

Poor old George must be spinning in his grave right now. 

What he did not say, but probably would have were he in possession of the information we have now, was that political parties – in their continuous quest to gain and retain power – would increasingly resort to money to do so. Politics in America today is all about money. It is expensive to get elected and expensive to defend your seat once in situ. The Constitution itself even unwittingly aids in this process by prescribing a two-year term for members of the House – from the moment they get to Washington, the party makes sure that their first priority is to raise money. Not legislate – raise funds for themselves and the party. 

This situation was bad enough even before Citizens United. Post that incredible decision by the Supreme Court, the floodgates have opened with PACs, SuperPACs and dark money – 95% of it financed by fewer than 100 individuals in total – seeking to steer the course of politics and government. The 2016 election cost $6.5 billion, of which $1.7 billion came from these outside sources. From 2002 to 2018, the money expended per election by SuperPACs rose from $17 million to over $1 billion. 

Some people say that, since both parties indulge in this sort of money frenzy, it doesn’t really affect the outcome and therefore doesn’t matter. That argument entirely misses the point. In virtually every political system on earth, the first priority of any politician is to repay the people who put him/her in power so that they ensure that he/she stays there. In a really well functioning democracy, such repayment comes in the form of public goods – roads, health, education, social security. In a dictatorship or a flawed democracy (which is how the US is now classified by the Economist Intelligence Unit), it is more likely to take the form of private goods – i.e. money, power or property. This is what we are seeing today. The tax cut of 2018 favored the rich. Deregulation has favored major corporations, even to the detriment of the environment. And, in the era of Covid- 19, critical equipment such as PPE and ventilators are being steered to states that support the President. 

Such behavior in the past in both the United States and France led to revolution. I am not advocating that the masses resort to violence to overthrow the powers that be, but I do believe that Covid-19 has removed the veil that covered so much of this behavior and that a true groundswell of outrage could lead to serious reform. 

Such reform is not beyond our powers of imagination. Indeed, most developed nations have systems in place that are expressly designed to remove the influence of money in politics. There are three systems that are the most prevalent: 

1) Elections entirely funded by the state – each candidate for whatever office 

gets a set budget for campaigning. Parties and their surrogates cannot raise money for this purpose; 2) Limits on how much money can be raised but no limits on how much can be spent (cutting off the supply of money but not legislating on who spends what); 3) Limiting how much can be spent on electioneering but not on how much can be raised. In these circumstances, parties use the money to support their fixed costs, not the variable costs of campaigning. 

We can debate which of these – or, indeed, an entirely different idea – would be most appropriate in the US. But one thing is certain: if we wish to see the corrupting influence of money removed from politics; if we wish to stop the widening inequality between the mega-rich and everyone else; if we wish to see the erosion of the power of labor stopped; then we must put an end to a system that sees political power as something to be bought and sold.