October 24, 2011

The Populist’s Dilemma

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“[A]n immediate ban on all private contributions of money and gifts, to all politicians in federal office, from individuals, corporations, ‘political action committees,’ ‘super political action committees,’ lobbyists, unions and all other private sources of money or things of value to be replaced by the fair, equal and total public financing of all federal political campaigns.”

If anyone was still wondering what this whole “Occupy Wall Street” thing is about, here it is. This is a selection from Article IV of the 99 Percent Declaration, a preliminary list of grievances drafted by the community currently occupying Zuccotti Park. The declaration outlines 20 major grievances, and this injunction against corruption tops the list. We can stop pretending that the Occupy movement is directionless, and we can get on with the conversation: do their demands make sense?

Their principle demand seems pretty straightforward: no more corruption. As it stands now, wealthy citizens or groups of citizens can use campaign contributions to turn money into political influence. When money = power, we instinctively feel that something other than democracy is happening. Common sense suggests that one person should have one vote, and that the wealthy should be kept at arm’s length from the politicians. This is an extremely easy argument to sell to angry people, and it makes for a pretty good rallying call. By its very nature, the Occupy movement encompasses a wide variety of viewpoints, but pretty much everyone involved seems to be in agreement when it comes to hating corruption.

Unfortunately, corruption isn’t as simple as all that. If lobbying and campaign contributions were really just a vice of the oppressive upper class, then corruption would be a problem that a well-organized populist uprising could effectively eliminate. If tyranny were simple, politics would be easy: Disempower those big, nasty “special interest groups,” and true democracy will go on its merry way.

The irony, though, is that, at least in theory, interest groups exist to prevent tyranny. While Occupy Wall Street is principally concerned with the tyranny of “a greed-driven corporatocracy run by boardroom oligarchs who represent .05% of the population but own 38% of the wealth” — that is to say, the tyranny of the wealthy minority — our Founding Fathers were more concerned with what de Tocqueville calls “the tyranny of the majority.” As James Madison describes in The Federalist, No. 10, “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government … enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” In other words: In a system of pure majority rule, who looks out for the little guys?

This question complicates democracy somewhat. A system of one vote for each citizen seems supremely democratic, and, in a way, it is, but it also tends toward tyranny of the majority. From the perspective of a minority group, straight, unadulterated democracy is not fair. Unless a member of a minority group can speak with more than just his vote, he is doomed to silence and oppression.

Political associations are meant to be a way for minorities to pool their resources and make their voices heard, and sometimes they do just that. Consider the role the NAACP played in fighting Jim Crow laws and working toward desegregation. From this perspective, “special interest groups” seem like the good guys.

Of course, when the 99 Percent Declaration denounces the “current system’s propagation of legalized bribery and perpetual conflicts of interests,” it isn’t attacking the NAACP. It is attacking greedy top-hat-wearing capitalists who speak with more than one vote simply because they have money.

The problem, though, is that there is no immediately apparent way to separate the “good” political associations (from a progressive perspective, groups like Planned Parenthood and the NAACP) from the “bad” ones (the “boardroom oligarchs” who throw money at legislature in order to stay rich). The wealthy minority and the oppressed minority have one thing in common: They are both minorities, so they share the same mechanisms for protecting their own interests. It is difficult to disempower one without disempowering the other. For anyone interested in social justice, limiting the power of interest groups risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This conundrum forces progressive populist movements like Occupy Wall Street into an uncomfortable corner. For example, the 99 Percent Declaration says of the recent “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision, “This heinous decision equates the payment of money by corporations, wealthy individuals and unions to politicians with the exercise of protected free speech. We, the People, demand that this institutional bribery and corruption never again be deemed protected free speech.” You can almost hear the confused mob chanting, “To hell with corporations! To hell with wealthy individuals! To hell with … unions?” Since when are the corporations and the unions on the same team? What the Declaration calls institutional bribery and corruption, the unions would call collective bargaining.

My point is not that unions are evil and deserve to be neutered, or that corporations are good and deserve all the influence that they can buy. My point is that an anti-corruption platform is more complicated than it initially appears to be. Interest groups are indeed a source of corruption, and they do indeed facilitate rule by the rich. But they are also a tool for social justice — a tool which we should have serious misgivings about discarding.

Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at tmoore@cornellsun.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tom Moore