Over the last three decades, the two political parties have served the Public Interest less and less. They are more and more in thrall to the ruling elites who finance the party's candidates. In accepting these campaign donations, which are the sine qua non of winning elections, our politicians, regardless of party affiliation, have lost their independence. Our political parties thus serve themselves, not their constituents. Although corruption is as old as human government itself, it is a matter of degree. Since the early 1980s America's monied elites have captured the Congress and the Presidency to a much greater extent than was true in the decades after World War II.
This view might strike you as an over-generalization. Most politicians are not so much corrupt as they are obedient. They follow orders from their political bosses. These latter, who set the agenda, are the ones who matter to the elites. Powerful politicians control key committees in Congress. These long-serving kingpins have absolute, unquestioned power to promote or kill legislation in committee. If you have these chairmen or ranking members in your pocket, it is possible to shape and guide the proposals which will eventually be passed into law. In order to control these key committees in the House or Senate, it is necessary to have majorities in one or the other, and ideally, both. The overriding goal of the political parties is thus to win majorities in general elections. That goal might seem obvious, but if the system has been captured, such majorities do not serve the Public Interest.
As a result, in general elections huge amounts of money go toward disseminating propaganda messages on TV which do not specifically support one candidate or the other. Instead, these advertisements support one party or the other through indirect messaging. For example, if you see generalized ads asserting that Federal regulation or uncertain tax policy is strangling business investment and hindering job creation, you'll know without being told that this is a pro-Republican message.
As the theory goes, you are more likely to vote Republican if these simple but cleverly presented messages (including the "hook") appeal to you. This kind of opinion laundering works. Television changed everything, and not for the better. TV ads are far more effective than radio or text ads ever were. Televised propaganda campaigns designed to create or cement party loyalty cost lots of money. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is an important purveyor of political propaganda for the Republicans, but ad hoc groups are created all the time, a process aided by the Citizens United opinion, which lifted restrictions on corporate money in election campaigns. Similar organizations support the Democrats, but they are playing catch-up. Democrats were on the losing end of a "crushing 6-1 advantage" in television spending in the 2010 elections.
In so far as the two parties serve their own interests and not yours, and are focused almost exclusively on controlling the Senate and the House, Congress has become wholly dysfunctional over these last 30 years. Neither party wants the other to succeed at anything. (In practice, this is mostly Republicans obstructing Democrats, who are often too wishy-washy and divided to present a unified front.) Polarization has now reached levels never seen before. Peter Orszag, Obama's former OMB director, has jumped into this fray. He wants to cure this dysfunction. He laid out his plan in Too Much of a Good Thing in The New Republic.
Why we need less democracy.
In an 1814 letter to John Taylor, John Adams wrote that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” That may read today like an overstatement, but it is certainly true that our democracy finds itself facing a deep challenge: During my recent stint in the Obama administration as director of the Office of Management and Budget, it was clear to me that the country’s political polarization was growing worse—harming Washington’s ability to do the basic, necessary work of governing. If you need confirmation of this, look no further than the recent debt-limit debacle, which clearly showed that we are becoming two nations governed by a single Congress—and that paralyzing gridlock is the result.
So what to do? To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.
One is simultaneously struck by the irony and naïveté of this proposal. Orszag still thinks he lives in a Democracy, but seeing correctly that it has failed, albeit for the wrong reasons, he seeks to circumvent stifling polarization by creating automatic policies and establishing "depoliticized" outside commissions which would make "certain policy decisions." Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an automatic policy independent of those selected to set it. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a depoliticized anything. (That sentence came out all wrong, but I do like it!) Will Wilkinson, a libertarian writer, criticized Orszag's proposal along these lines in the Economist.
But how do we [change things]? Suppose we really want to. How does the surgeon with broken hands fix his own hands? If Congress is able and willing to vote to circumvent itself, then it is not really in need of circumvention. If it can't circumvent itself, but circumvention really is necessary, then what? Perhaps Mr Orszag imagines CIA director David Petraeus setting up a number of independent panels and commissions after mounting a successful military coup? I would suggest a constitutional convention. Anyway, in the absence of a plan for implementation, Mr Orszag's article is a bit like telling a kid failing at basketball to get taller.
The Roman poet Juvenal asked "who will guard the guardians?" — Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
There is no good answer to Juvenal's question. How can we displace the ruling elites and their political puppets? Outside a military coup, as Wilkinson facetiously suggests, there is no solution. Congress itself controls the reform process, and Congress is a disaster. Even worse, Orszag, speaking of a failing Democracy, sees no conflict of interest in the fact that after serving as Obama's OMB director, he moved smoothly to a cushy, high-paying job at Citigroup.
John Adams' observation that “there never was a Democracy yet that did not commit suicide" has been borne out in modern times. The ceaseless chatter we hear in the media about politics and elections is propaganda designed to reinforce crucial illusions. These endless elections serve as charades which entertain and distract the public. In this regard, they are much like the National Football League or the World Wrestling Federation. But for the ruling elites, these elections are crucial. They will determine which party has majorities in both houses of Congress and controls the White House. The power & influence of these elites is expressed through the unreformed political system, not by circumventing it as Peter Orszag suggests we do.