Removing the Stranglehold
The other day I was discussing the current economic situation with a conservative close relative of mine. He asked me, very simply, "Why is Tim Geithner still being employed by the administration?"
I didn't have a good answer, because, frankly, there isn't any. By any rule of logic and reason, Treasury Secretary Geithner would have been sent packing months ago – heck, in a rational world, he would have never been appointed and confirmed to begin with.
Mr. Geithner's advocacy of massive bank bailouts, and his propensity to protect the powerful at the expense of ordinary Americans, has made him extremely unpopular among liberals and progressives, and most honest conservatives aren't exactly thrilled with him either.
I mentioned to my close relative that Mr. Geithner's continued assignment to a powerful position in our government (along with many other investment-house Wall Street insiders) reveals an unpleasant truth about our political system: our nation's real power structure is completely unaccountable to the voters.
Ben Bernanke is about to be easily re-confirmed as chairman of the Federal Reserve (though the efforts of a handful of senators to put a hold on him are much appreciated), despite being a heavy contributor to our economic mess.
Alan Greenspan still gets considerable media time and is treated like some sort of oracle – and this is the guy who was telling homeowners to get variable-rate mortgages just a few short years ago.
No matter which party is in power, Wall Street pretty much gets its way, even to the point where we descend into absurdities like throwing hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money at the very actors who ran our economy into the ground to begin with.
Why is it like this? My close relative and I continued to toss this around. I suggested that America's power structure, through its favored access to (if not outright control of) the media and many other means of popular influence, is able to expend massive resources to "pre-select" our officeholder candidates for us, and ensure that neither party nominates anyone who's going to upset the Goldman Sachs applecart too much.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee caught a lot of flack for his pardons, effectively eliminating him as a viable presidential candidate, but it's easy to believe that Mr. Huckabee's real sin was being a populist instead of a corporatist; Pardongate was just an easy way to get rid of him. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has a bevy of scandals attached to him, but he's still treated as a "serious" candidate, because he's a corporatist
And President Barack Obama, for all the silly carping from the far right about him being a "socialist," has pretty much toed the Wall Street line on most important matters, especially in the composition of his economic advisers, where liberals are woefully under-represented. He continues to pursue free-trade agreements with third-world countries – something that makes Wall Street drool on cue – and his health-care reform proposals, once one cuts through the hype, are very timid, modest initiatives that continue to protect the insurance industry through measures like mandates for purchase. They're better than nothing, but the president is operating snugly within the parameters drawn out for him by the power structures that contributed heavily to his campaign.
Anyway, that's a digression; the point is that in most elections beyond the local level, we pretty much have the choice of a Democratic corporatist or a Republican corporatist. Populism is almost uniformly framed negatively by our media, and any political figure who gets tagged as a "populist" is quickly dealt with, as we saw with Governor Huckabee and others like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. (Not to defend Edwards, but the corporatist Mark Sanford happily remains in his governor's office despite being guilty of the same indiscretions.)
So, how do we fix this? Populism is, well, popular; there's every reason to believe that genuinely populist leaders can be elected and can take measures to undo the stranglehold Wall Street interests have on our economy and our lives. The problem is that populist candidates understandably have trouble drawing campaign contributions from big-money sources, which undercuts their ability to get their messages across.
And this is where my close relative surprised me. I mentioned that the only real way around this is to implement public campaign financing for elections, which would enable officeholders to actually legislate and govern, instead of having to spend virtually every waking hour fundraising. It would also allow populist-oriented candidates the means to make their voices heard.
Well, my conservative relative completely agreed with this. Public funding of campaigns is not the sexiest issue, but it's virtually the only way we can truly transform our political system into one that actually is accountable to the public at large, rather than to a small coterie of campaign contributors.
Such an initiative, of course, would have many hurdles to climb, most importantly the unfortunate Buckley v. Valeo decision by the Supreme Court in 1976, which held that, essentially, money is speech. This has never been self-evident to me; any speech that interferes with the democratic process itself is something that could be open to regulation, in the same vein as hate speech, slander, and the proverbial shouting-fire-in-a-crowded-theater. And we're at the point where our political culture has been so distorted by this that it exists to serve only the elite; that's why Congress can't seem to get anything done that actually benefits the public at large, even if the public overwhelmingly wants it.
It's time to revisit the relationship between money and political campaigns. The status quo is not serving Americans well. Many voices are being shut out. It's time to let them speak.
Because, who knows, once Americans are able to listen to a few choice "populist" leaders, they might decide that's exactly what we need. Even if it inconveniences the elites.