Part 1: The Problem
Nearly 250 years ago, our founding fathers established a body of government that they believed would lead to a better future for all, one that protected the rights of its people because the system would be comprised of the people it sought to protect. Today, however, it appears as though we have allowed dark money interests in media and politics to erode the very notion of the Democratic Republic they established, leading us down a pathway of oligarchy.
An Oligarchy in this context is “a small group of people having control of a country.” Historically, Americans have been able to avoid this corruption through a well-defended and rigidly defined electoral process, where the people (you and me) make the ultimate decision concerning who represents them.
Today, however, modern politics is not what it once used to be. Considering our current sphere of media super-connectivity, the cost of running for elected office is unpragmatically expensive. For example, in 2008, John McCain and Barack Obama spent approximately $1.15 billion on their campaigns combined (a staggering figure itself); however, that is about 14 times smaller than the 2020 presidential election in which Joe Biden and Donald Trump spent a whopping $14.4 billion comparatively.
While the example above focuses on the very top of political elections, the truth is that running for any political office has become too expensive for most Americans to afford. The issue is then directly perpetuated by multibillion-dollar money interests that have become a staple in the American electoral process.
Reports from February 2022 alone show that former Pres. Donald Trump, the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party raised tens of millions of dollars. That number is independent of the capital campaigns of individual candidates in the current election cycle.
We have to ask ourselves, where does this money come from?
Candidates and political parties like to tell their constituents that their support comes from small-dollar, grassroots donations; however, since landmark rulings and legislation such as the overturning of Citizens United, tracking down the source of campaign donations has become incredibly difficult. How can we keep our representatives accountable if we do not know their funding sources? Knowing the source of campaign funding is critically important! But are we meant to take them at their word when they say their money comes from regular people?
With the current state of our modern political era, regular people will likely never be able to compete with the political machines that restrict them. This is because well-intending people have seemingly been forced to corrupt their senses of self to please the grinding machines that are our political parties.
Campaign spending aside, is it not also strange that the leading candidates for higher political office (on both sides) in the State of Pennsylvania are primarily all currently serving out elected terms and are getting paid full-time salaries at the taxpayers’ expense while simultaneously working their campaign trails? How could regular people working a traditional 9-5 job ever hope to compete with party candidates who can work around the clock on the ordinary peoples’ dime?
As each election season results in increasingly higher campaign costs to compete with big money interests, the likeliness of anyone winning political office without the endorsement/support of the machine diminishes every year.
The two American political parties, by nature, are designed to take extreme and opposite stances. Ultimately, this is an effort to radicalize their bases and build consistent bodies of financial support year-round. This issue alone has turned neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. It has ripped apart the essence of the United States of America and has left us in a state of disunion.
Considering this, it appears as though the fear of Oligarchy reigning supreme over the American people is becoming more of a reality with each election. This notion could not be further from the essence of the foundation that our nation was founded upon.
During the era of our founding fathers, world governments and leading political theorists said that our founders were idealistic in their belief that people could establish a fair and free system of governance. They deemed it impractical to think that a nation could survive the threat of ramped factionalism. The same factionalism we see more and more of today.
This notion plagued our founders themselves. In the Federalist Papers No. 10, James Madison, who is often called the “father” of the constitution, described a faction by saying, “I understand a number of citizens… who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
In these words, Madison is effectively saying that a fraction can be described as a group of people who passionately unite behind some common issue or interest; who are opposed to the rights of other people or to the interests of a community as a whole that disagree with them.
In our modern era, the notion of factionalism, as described by Madison above, remarkably resembles that of the unwavering partisanism of our political party system today.
Madison reckoned with this notion of factionalism only because he believed that the ideals and beliefs of the American people would be so diverse and scattered to where one faction would likely never have a majority of power within our government. Yet today, we are left with a Two-Party System that our Founding Fathers warned us about.
George Washington specifically warned against this partisanism by saying, “It’s only natural for unbridled partisanship, unrestrained by allegiance to a greater cause, to lead to chaos.”
However, the fact remains that while many of our most prominent founders were troubled by the concept of unbridled partisanism, the system of government they were able to create has lasted for nearly 250 years leading up to the point we are in now.
Thom Hartmann of “Commondreams” recently proposed a cycle that he believes has led us down the trail of looming oligarchy. In his article “The ‘Doom Loop’ of American Oligarchy,” he said:
“The faction-caused Doom Loop goes like this:
• Government makes the rules that regulate taxes and corporations and uses those rules to prevent wealthy people or businesses from corrupting the government itself.
• These “guardrails of democracy” include taxation that’s high enough that oligarchy doesn’t emerge, along with tight regulation of money in politics.
• Those corporations and individuals who mostly own/control the marketplace want to “throw off the shackles of government.”
• So they get together and pour money into the political process, essentially buying all the politicians and judges they need.
• Then their wholly-owned legislators and judges remove laws or change their interpretation to weaken or even eliminate those guardrails of taxation and regulation that protect democracy.
• Removing the taxation and regulation guardrails increases the profits of the corporations and the wealth of the morbidly wealthy oligarchs.
• They then recycle a small portion of that “new” money back to the politicians to either maintain the status quo or deteriorate the guardrails even further.
• Eventually the guardrails become so weak that the government’s ability to control the excesses of the faction breaks down and the oligarchs take over, transitioning the democracy into oligarchy.
• Oligarchic government then, typically within a decade or so, turns into a strongman autocracy, as we see with today’s Russia and almost saw with Trump’s presidency.”
In straightforward terms: Powerful, rich people motivated primarily by a desire to increase their own wealth and power act together as a faction to accomplish that goal. Like Lewis Powell suggested to America’s business leaders and wealthiest men in 1971 will always try to change a democracy into an oligarchy.
While Hartmann, in his article, continues to outline his belief that the issue of this dark money interest in politics is primarily a one-sided phenomenon, I argue that the political corruptness we are currently seeing run ramped in our nation is an issue that both primary political parties perpetuate within our nation.
Suppose at its core, Hartmann’s theory relies on the notion that historically America’s wealthiest people have colluded to gradually use their money and influence as capital to corrupt and pollute the American electoral process. In that case, the question remains “What has specifically changed in recent history to perpetuate this at an unprecedented rate?”
A question to which I believe the answer is a combination of the rapid development of technological advancement, the introduction of “Mainstream 24-hour Media”, and the improved effectiveness of mass-marketing strategies.
On June 1st, 1980, CNN became the first media network to introduce an emerging concept known today as the 24-hour media cycle. Leading up to this moment, media agencies released news briefs at scheduled intervals throughout the day, mainly sticking to the facts of the day. Initially, the problem with the concept of a 24-hour media cycle was that generally, there is not 24 hours’ worth of news-worthy content year-round, an issue soon to be “addressed” a few years later.
In the 1980s, people began becoming increasingly more divided from a political standpoint. As the United States began to embark on its “Conservative Era” we began to see just how divided America was from an ideological perspective. To make matters worse, our elected officials at the time inflicted a devastating blow against the balance of media opinion. In 1987, the U.S. government repealed the “Fairness Doctrine,” opening the floodgates of divisiveness by allowing the media to mix opinion news into their hard news cycle.
As the world has become progressively more connected through technology, the amount of information the American people have access to has increased exponentially. At face value, this sounds like a good thing. The logic should then follow the notion that the more information people have, the easier it should be for them to make wise decisions. Yet, Americans believe that around 40% of the media they have access to is misleading.
Theoretically, the era of information we are currently living in today should have led us to a golden age of political fairness and equality, but in truth, poorly enacted legislation dating back to the 1980s, in combination with our societal bent towards technology, has introduced a phase of media that tends to be marketed content as opposed to facts-driven reporting.
This is not to say that all candidates are corrupted, and all media personnel are actively attempting to mislead the public for better ratings. Across America, countless people are working tirelessly to build a better future for America. However, in an age where it costs two candidates a combined $14 billion to run for President, and Senate campaigns range to the hundreds of millions of dollars, questions must be asked: Are we allowing money to buy our elections and corrupt our representatives? Have the Republican and Democratic parties gotten out of hand with their extremist views that center around building radical bases?