One Perspective: Nature abhors vacuums political and otherwise

 Stephen B. Young, The Daily Record Newswire

 

Low turnouts at party caucuses demonstrate the failure of the caucus system for creating political community, justice, and civic leadership. In general, the caucus system is a relic of old thinking. I believe that the polarization of our politics has driven people away from overt personal participation in meetings.

People have disengaged themselves, which contributes to the deepening of extremism and polarization. If people don’t stand up in person, they leave a vacuum in civic affairs. Life does not have room for emptiness, and thus vacuums get filled with new “stuff” as life moves on.

In America, a vacuum of personal engagement has been and continues to be filled with money. Money buys the ability to intrude into people’s lives with advertising and special messaging when they don’t come out for party activity. This money politics plays to emotions and to prejudices far more than to reasoned debate and compromise. In two ways.

First, in order to raise money, those who seek power need to play on emotions and prejudices. An individual’s decision to give money is always more intuitive, emotional and identity-based. This we know from marketing and sales research. Raising money in politics is more a question of how we feel about slogans and metaphors than of how we can be persuaded to do the right thing in difficult times under complicated circumstances, while all the time presuming some level of good will on the part of those around us.

Money-based politics is not like contemplation of the Rotary four-way standard for constructive decision-making: Is something true? Is it fair? Will it build good will? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Money politics is much more about what’s in it for me and for people who are like me. Serving the common good at the cost of giving in to others with different ideas gets pushed into fourth or fifth place in such politics.

Second, to mobilize otherwise apathetic and self-distancing individuals to come out and vote, their emotions and prejudices must be set abuzz. We need to know what will trigger passions. This strategy cannot but destroy good governance.  Opponents are negatively pigeon-holed; issues are presented in slanted ways that set off fear or upset. It’s the lively packaging, not the reality it encapsulates, that so often gets attention and motivates turnout.

The use of what were once disparaged as unseemly “wedge” issues is now commonplace. Just consider our dysfunctional government in Washington, where the paramount rule is to “play to the base.” Emotionalism, taken too far, supports the emergence of a kind of tribalism in which group-think among the insiders is coupled with fear of outsiders.

Money politics is now contributing as well to atomization of the electorate, not building party cohesion. Social media provides candidates and campaigns with new ways of connecting directly to individuals around their personal peeves and likes/dislikes. Social media stimulates more fixation on oneself — one’s “brand” — and less concern for the common good.

Money politics has cut the props from under the one-time vision of parties as community meeting places and crucibles for forging compromise through dialogue and cutting of deals.

Money follows the candidate, not the party apparatus. Thus we have rivals within parties competing with each other directly in the minds of potential donors and voters, stoking the fires of divisive wedge perceptions and not encouraging rising above self to seek majority coalitions.

But our situation is not new in history. Similar trends brought down the Roman Republic.

Romans grew slack in their political standards and money stepped in to buy votes and soldiers. Dictators like Marius, Pompey, Caesar, Antony and Octavian arose to put the Republic out of its misery.

In June 59 BC, Cicero spotted this trend at work, years before the assassination of Julius Caesar precipitated the final collapse of republican government at the bloody hands of Antony and Octavian. Cicero then wrote letters to his friend Atticus, who was in Greece on a business trip. At the time Rome was ruled in fact by three men — Crassus, the richest man in Rome; Pompey, with several legions of loyal soldiers at his personal command; and Caesar, clever and manipulative. The main body of Roman patricians in positions of social and economic leadership disdained this triumvirate but did nothing to change the political culture they spawned.

Cicero reported to Atticus that when Caesar took his seat in the theater, no one clapped; that when a playwright put into one of his plays a pun on Pompey’s name, the audience broke out into 16 ovations; and that gossip mongers told tales of how the three potentates were fixing jury outcomes and bribing voters to get cronies elected to office.

Cicero then commented that the freedom of Romans to criticize these leaders was more a source of sadness than grounds for optimism in that such freedom to judge revealed that while minds were free to judge, there was no virtue left to drive action: nos virtutem adligatam — “our virtue is in chains.”

Romans were in such a state of mind that they fell back into acceptance of bad goings-on. From that point on they never recovered sufficient “virtue” to save their political system from decline.

In most states not so many years ago, a few thousand dollars was enough to finance a campaign for the state House of Representatives. No longer. Senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns now run into the millions of dollars. Presidential campaigns have hit the billion dollar level for each major party.

As long as we hold the freedom to spend money in politics as a form of free speech, I see no end to this moral and intellectual corruption eating away at the decency and sustainability of our Republic.

The only solution is a constitutional amendment creating a category of regulated behavior that is not considered speech. Spending money is a speech act, but it is far more act than genuine speech.

Spending money differs from normal, un-broadcast speech in that it is subject to the laws of scale. More money has more impact than less money. This is not so true for in-person speech. The impact of speech turns on its content and the known or assumed character of the speaker. We could impose a limit on the scale of money used in politics, or channel it only through parties, but leave the content of such money speech free from regulation.

 

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