For a while now, the news out of Washington has been beyond the pale. Not just silly, but beyond silly. Like when over 90% of the American people support universal background checks for weapons purchases and Congress can’t make it happen.
So what is going on? According to Larry Lessig, one problem is that US politics these days is not really about public opinion at all. It is more about the opinions of those who fund politics. And by and large, those opinions are based on corporate interests - like those of the gun manufacturers.
Is it so? One might answer that it has always been so. Corporations have long played powerful behind the scenes roles in shaping US policy. From time to time, this became annoying and that power was trimmed back. Teddy Roosevelt seemed to see “trust busting” as a sort of sport. Here he is, courtesy of OSU
More recently we have seen similar trimming back in regulation of tobacco products, car safety, pollution and so on. But in each case, it took a very hard push to make the change. And victory did not include stripping corporate interests of power .
Attacking corporate influence as a problem in itself has been less successful. Anyone remember the hopes that folks had for the FEC (Federal Election Commission) back in the late 1970’s? Well, the FEC is still around but no one talks about it very much and especially not as the hope for campaign finance reform. I don’t recall Larry mentioning it even one time in his passionate address.
So is Larry right that things must change now — or else? My guess is that things will not change in the foreseeable future. Even if the US gets reasonable gun regulation (finally), we are moving in a totally different direction when it comes to election reform. One party (guess who) sees their future inextricably tied to (1) more financing from the enfranchised (not less) and (2) reduced access to the vote for those who would disenfranchise them (minorities and the poor). And as Rachel Maddow has brought out again and again, these folks are in power at the state level and acting on their agenda where they can.
So where will the mandate for election reform emerge from? Not from the right (see above). It is against their political interests (as they see them). And most likely not from the left. The left is still too weak and self-absorbed to make this kind of agenda grabbing play for power. They will make a stink about fairness, but also will probably roll up their sleeves and play the political game as it is played now (see above) in order to get in power — rather than fight to change that system itself.
So if things will change, the impetus will have to come from outside of the political process. Speeches by Larry Lessig, as moving as they are, will not do it alone. Nor will hand wringing and chest pounding over the internet. A scandal like Sandy Hook? Perhaps. But more likely — and I hope that I am wrong — reform to balance the playing field between entrenched interests and everyone else will require a long and hard fought political campaign that will take years.
BTW, this reminds me a bit about the election reform issues that were a recurrent theme of British politics in the early to mid 19th century. Reform came, but that took a long, long time and a lot of campaigning by whigs and liberals. Thinking back to Hogarth’s day, perhaps things are not quite so bad as they were back in the “good old days”