Confirming the coupling of money and power

Much of this week’s American political news has been dominated by two high-profile and highly-anticipated Supreme Court decisions.

The first decision struck down much of Arizona’s intrusion into immigration law, on the grounds not that the law violates individual rights but on the narrower legal grounds that immigration is a federal concern. The second, even more prominent decision gave Barack Obama a win (and Mitt Romney a campaign issue) on medical care.

But it’s neither of these decisions about which I want to write.

Instead, I’m motivated by the less-trumpeted and more predictable Supreme Court decision that upheld the Republican Wyoming legislature’s repeal of a law banning large third-party campaign contributions. This decision was along the same 5-4 ideological lines that had previously removed campaign contribution limits from federal elections.

While no one is really surprised by the outcome of this case, its lack of dramatic interest is closer to the real story, as the American right continues its systematic attacks on the trappings of democracy intended by the creators of the American political system.

“Trappings” rather than realities, for I’m not naive enough to believe that the average citizen ever had much real power in American politics. The difference now is that the mechanics of the system are being tweaked to allow the rich to control political life without the former inconveniences of having to operate outside the law or behind the scenes to exert control.

Some time ago, I reviewed Sheldon D. Wolin’s excellent Democracy Inc., a book that outlines the threat to traditional notions of democracy in what Wolin calls “managed democracy.”

Combine Wolin’s ideas with our ever-increasing insight into the irrational basis of most of our decisions, an awareness popularized by books ranging from George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and what emerges is a picture of a shadow democracy, a system of pretend choice in which the game is rigged by party hacks and corporate behavioural psychologists.

Wolin writes of “managed democracy,” a system that works on many levels to minimize citizens’ participation in politics. It’s not just the cynical manipulation of voters’ lists or laws that limit registration efforts in minority districts. According to Wolin, corporate consumer culture encourages the political disengagement of the populace. And when people are either entirely cynical or entirely disinterested, you can get away with almost anything — as long as you label it cleverly.

And that’s the second part of the current problem — the skill with which politicians and media shills manipulate public perception of the issues to produce the desired irrational response. Call your sins virtues, label your opponents’ virtues sins, and there’s no limit to what you can do.

The idea that we’re essentially instinctive and habitually non-reflective when we make choices has been a hot topic in academia and the media. I’ve written a fair amount about the topic here already, and I don’t intend to repeat the details here.

In a system with no limits on corporate spending on election advertising, with the rise of the SuperPACs, with individual backers promising tens of millions of dollars each to their favourite candidates, with out-of-state money accounting for the vast majority of spending in the recent Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election — I could keep going — there is no longer even the veneer of a level playing field.

If the “rational actor” theory is dead, and if those who know how to manipulate the impulsive, irrational voter now operate with no hint of restraint, the outcome will be what’s happening in American politics: the Looney Tunes anarchy of ignorant armies of voters, clashing by slogan without regard to anything real.

So it seems that American democracy (and by extension, government in other mature democracies) may well be little more than a hollow exercise, a fantasy of popular control, no more meaningful or consequential than is picking the next American Idol.

Even when voters do make choices, those choices are determined primarily by un- or pre-conscious forces, of which we are often unaware but that outside agitators manipulate like a puppeteer works the strings on his wooden doll.

All of this leads to a truly disquieting thought.

If we are so susceptible to manipulation, if we are (as a group) unwilling or unable to resist even when we know what’s being done to us, maybe democracy isn’t really the most appropriate system of government, despite Churchill’s witticism that it’s the worst system of government in the world, except for all of the others.

If democracy’s a shell game, if it doesn’t really exist, perhaps there’s something out there that’s better, or at least more honest. Just don’t ask me to figure out what that system might be.

You don’t have to know how to make a watch to know that yours tells the wrong time.

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