Apr 18, 2012

How to Break the Plutocracy

Steve's brilliant post from yesterday rightly called most developed countries "democratic plutocracies." I think he's right to do so, and I think it's quite unlikely that the plutocracy will be broken anytime soon. Nevertheless I think it can be done.

My rough model of our plutocracy is that the wealthy and the privileged use their money not to bribe people, but by making the politicians dependent on them for donations, creating a favorable intellectual environment through think tanks and payouts to favored economists, paying former staffers and friends of politicians huge sums to lobby, and of course through shadowy SuperPACs that flood the airwaves with agitprop. Probably the most important aspect of this is it's all aboveboard. Nobody has to take sacks of money and consciously acknowledge to himself that he is corrupt, and therefore the corruption can spread much further.

I think this edifice is more vulnerable than it appears. Obviously Obama has been eaten by the plutocracy, but here's my model for an insurgent movement. For starters, a candidate (or movement) would need to be able to ignore money. I think, especially now that SuperPACs can flood the airwaves (making voters ever-less-likely to pay attention), and especially for already-established politicians, the marginal value of advertising is quite low. (It would help a lot if the media stopped using money raised as a proxy for success.) Second, the candidate would need an adequate grasp of the policies to hand. Obama, for example, made a remarkably stupid and completely unjustified pivot to deficit reduction in 2010. It's quite easy, I imagine, for people to get sucked into the DC bonehead consensus when they reach high office. We'd need an unusually confident candidate, or some kind of independent advisory body free of the soul-sucking Beltway platitude machine.

But most importantly by far, is you'd need a Lyndon Johnson or FDR candidate. The heart of my scheme is the realization that there is enormous power waiting for anyone who can grasp this situation and break the plutocrats. Johnson was monster in many ways, a morally bereft, cynical, and absolutely fucking ruthless operator, but the man knew how to use power. My biggest problems with Obama are that he seems bizarrely uninterested in flexing the muscle of the federal bureaucracy (dozens of vacancies go un-nominated), and appears to actually believe in compromise for its own sake, and not solely focused on winning policy battles and elections at all costs. What happened when he passed a milquetoast stimulus, renominated Bernanke, and tried to reduce the deficit in 2010? The Democrats got crushed.

Politics is a dirty, terrible business run by awful people, but if you play, you have to play to win. Sometimes I wonder if Hillary Clinton would have done better.

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