Down Goes America

Texas Representative Paul Workman is a large, humorless man. Not overweight, just a big guy, maybe close to six-foot-three. He’s in his 60’s now with silver Republican hair, and little chance he wasn’t a star defensive lineman back in high school. My interactions with him at the Texas State Capitol were always brief and cordial. I didn’t live in his Westlake-centered district, but went to his office several times to help set up meetings with volunteers that did. 

Nearly everyone agrees we should do something about the problem of money in politics. But the people in positions of power, people like Paul Workman, don’t have the will to act.

One morning outside the House Chamber, Rep. Workman was the tallest one standing in this small half-huddle of three Wolf-PAC volunteers. We’d stopped him for some direct lobbying. He knew our organization already since a different set of vols had a meeting with him the previous legislative session. We were the citizen-volunteers trying to pass the Free & Fair Elections Resolution. Workman angled his body slightly, making it clear from the start our conversation would be a short one. I was quiet and let our most experienced volunteer do the talking. 

The whole time we’re making our case to him, Workman’s eyes are glancing around the generous marbled hallway filled with 3 or 4 other state reps and dozens of real lobbyists- the expensively dressed paid ones. At one point, just before he completes his turn away from our semi-circle, Workman leans towards our senior volunteer and says in a low tone, “You know I appreciate what you’re trying to do….but a lot of people helped me get to where I am.” 

Whoa! Did you hear that?! He just said the quiet part out loud. In case you missed it, I’ll translate. I got elected because my rich friends gave me a lot of money to run for office. My support of your legislation would be a poke in their eyes and I’m sorry but I can’t do that. 

And therein lies the rub.

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This is the post I don’t want to write. America is in a steep decline right now and it’s not okay. The zillion ways in which we’re doing it wrong as a nation have left me feeling deeply frustrated and disappointed. 

If you’re now expecting me to launch into a zillion detailed rants explaining what I mean by we’re doing it wrong, it’s not going to happen. There is enough ranting out there already. I do want you to know what I know, not about what’s bad now, but about why it’s unlikely to get any better from here. 

In 1976, the US Supreme Court made a fatal ruling. And by fatal I truly mean that decision killed the America I was born into. The year of America’s bicentennial was also in ‘76. What a twisted coincidence the year America celebrates its grand 200th birthday is also the year its demise begins.

Maybe it seemed extra awesome because I was 12 years old, but I seriously remember America’s bicentennial celebration being a REALLY BIG DEAL. It was a triumphant celebration of our success as a nation. Y2K was big, and I partied like it was 1999. But ‘76 was bigger. I even collected enough special bicentennial edition quarters to make a full $10 roll out of them- back when we used to stuff them into those paper coin-rollup thingys.  

To be fair to the 7 supreme court justices that slow-killed America in 1976, I don’t believe they had ill-intent. Their decision was not malicious, they were simply unable to foresee the tragic and far-reaching consequences of their ruling. In short, they blew it!

The case I’m talking about is called Buckley v Valeo, and it’s the “money is speech” decision. What that ruling did was conflate your right to free speech with your right to spend money on political campaigns. All of the justices agreed limits on how much a person can give directly to a candidate were necessary because the government has an abiding interest not to incentivize corruption. That meant big-money direct campaign contributions were out. But,…for other types of political spending, seven of them said, Have at it, Haus. I think where they got hung up was on the notion that the government shouldn’t be able to tell someone what they can and can’t do with their own money. Which sounds correct as soon as you hear it, right? But what they missed were all the unintended consequences of puncturing the fragile legal seal we need between money and politicians. They unwittingly did exactly what they stated they wanted to avoid– to incentivize corruption. If money’s corrupting influence is not walled-off from government entirely, it will find its way in like water seeping into the basement during a flood. What this ruling did was remove a couple of the sandbags put in place to keep it out. 

After the Buckley v Valeo decision America didn’t come off the rails the next day. However, that single ruling made the locomotive of a long train surge forward and engage the car behind it, which then pulled upon the next and so on. The political-money-corruption train was on the move, on its way to becoming unstoppable. More rulings followed that added additional fuel to the engine, like the ruling two years later that said corporations should have rights just like people and also be able to contribute money to political campaigns. Corporate influence on our government is so taken for granted now that it seems almost unbelievable that prior to ‘78, it was ILLEGAL for corporations to make campaign contributions. They still kind of did, of course, but they had to sneak around the laws to do it. If they were too brazen about it they might find themselves in the hot seat on investigative news shows like the once mighty 60 Minutes.

There may have been an opportunity early on to stop the train that took off in ‘76, but that unfortunately did not happen. A lot of noise is often made about how terrible the Citizens United decision was in 2010 (that’s the case that ushered in the era of the Super-PAC), but the truth is… we were long since doomed. Now, here in 2020, the political-money-corruption train is barrelling ahead at full speed and we are living within the trainwreck right now. 

Fatal Flaw

The Supreme Court’s job is to review legal decisions made by lower courts and make sure they pass Constitutional muster. In the case of Buckley v. Valeo, seven justices equated a person’s freedom to spend their own money in politics with their right to free speech. The problem was that the Constitution lists the rights it intended to protect from government intrusion and the freedom to spend one’s own money on politics wasn’t among them. The court’s ruling stretched the right of free speech and freedom of expression to include money spent on public policy. The fact that our Constitution is silent on how political campaigns are funded will end up being it’s fatal flaw. 

This flaw can theoretically be fixed. Not guaranteeing women the right to vote was a flaw in our Constitution, also, but within 5 years after the women’s suffrage movement began, the fix was made- the 19th Amendment was ratified…..100 years ago this month, by the way. Adding an Amendment to the US Constitution was intentionally designed to be a difficult process… but we have managed to do it 27 times before. We should, again theoretically, be able to do it once more.

So how do you stop a train? Not to get all wonky on ya, but Article V of the Constitution itself spells out two routes for adding amendments, one is through Congress, the other through the states. At this point in time, Congress is a lost cause. Money’s magical power to buy hearts and minds has already completed its purchase of Washington, DC. Within the halls of Congress, there is no appetite for biting the hand that feeds.  

Adding an amendment through the state route is pretty much our only hope. Elected officials in state government are far closer to the people than the folks we send off to Washington, only to become crushed by the money train.  

I Swear I Tried

From late in 2014 up to the beginning of this year, I personally spent thousands of hours volunteering for an organization called Wolf-PAC. What this organization attempts to do is get state lawmakers to pass a bill that says, Yo, our state wants to get together with all the other states and do what Washington is incapable of- amending the constitution so we can finally start applying some brakes to the political-money-corruption train. The wording of the bills isn’t exactly like I just said it, but the idea is the same.

Nobody said the effort would be easy, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be impossible. It kills me to even say that. But I’ve seen the evidence first hand; just like the folks we love to hate in Washington, our state politicians are also unwilling to do what’s necessary to fix this most obvious problem in the world- our federal government is corrupt and money corrupted it. In my personal interactions with state lawmakers, I heard excuse after excuse: I think your efforts would be better spent working to get out the vote; I don’t think there’s much momentum for the issue this legislative session; And my personal least favorite, I’m sorry, but our office doesn’t have the band-width to take this on. 

If you think I was trying to get these bills passed alone, you would be quite wrong. The organization was named Wolf-PAC, because… as Rudyard Kipling said quite famously in The Jungle Book, “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Naming the organization Wolf-PAC shows it was known from the start that in order to get this done it would require many people working together. I was not a lone volunteer, not a lone wolf, as it were. I worked alongside a good number of really smart people to get this accomplished. Nonetheless, too many of our politicians (at every level) keep one eye on the political ramifications whenever making decisions. 

Urgent Family Hunting Trip, What?

Before the 2016 Texas legislative session even started, we met face to face with a Republican legislator named Lyle Larson, the representative of a district near San Antonio. Our top volunteers met with him at his district office. By all accounts the conversation went extremely well; there was a definite meeting of the minds. We showed him our bill’s language. He read it, set it back down on his desk, tapped his finger on top of the paper twice and said, “I’ll file this bill for you.” BAM! Done. We had his commitment right there. Let’s roll. Finding someone to file a bill is the first step and often the most difficult. Representative Lyle Larson has come to save America!

Or has he? When we followed up with him later he was somehow “unavailable.” We were told he was either tending to an urgent family matter or on a hunting trip. Or maybe it was both. The truth was that invisible political forces had intervened and he was running away from his own words. He didn’t file the bill and never provided any explanation as to why.

Another legislative year, Representative J.D. Sheffield, a kindly and thoughtful physician from Gatesville, Texas, signed his name to our bill as a co-author. For volunteers like me this was a huge victory. Being a co-author on a bill is like saying, I believe in this bill so much I might as well have written it myself. Sheffield is a Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor was a Democrat. Bipartisanship always makes a bill more likely to pass. However, here we go again… within 24 hours after physically signing his name to the bill, Sheffield’s office asked that it be removed. We literally had to white-out his signature. When we followed up with Sheffield later, he said softly that he’d discussed the bill with his “political consultant” and was advised to remove his name. AAAAARRRGHHHH!!!!! He should have discussed it with his constituents instead. 

I have many more stories similar to these from both democrats and republicans, all equally as dismaying. I wanted to believe that democracy was real, that ordinary citizens like me have the power to bring about real political change, but we simply do not. 

The Princeton Study

Most everyone in my circle already knows about The Princeton Study. But I have to assume most regular folks don’t. I will attempt to summarize it in four sentences. Two professors from Princeton University performed an analysis of 1,800 public policy survey questions and matched them against actual laws passed by Congress over the same 21 year time span (1981 – 2002). They wanted to see how well public opinion corresponded to which policy proposals ended up becoming laws. What they found was that the majority public opinion had no correlation to laws passed. However, when broken down by income levels, they discovered excellent correlation between what the wealthy wanted (and by no coincidence, what corporations wanted) and which laws were passed. Huh, ya don’t say.

In 2017 Congress voted to lower the US Corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, with almost no tax loopholes closed. What a super nice break for those poor corporations! The curious thing is that I do not remember a huge groundswell of support among the citizenry for such a generous tax cut. What I do remember is that after over 500 people were shot by a gunman in Las Vegas and then four months later another school shooting took out 17 students and faculty in Parkland, Florida, we had massive protests in the streets demanding our gun laws be reformed. Over a year later, bump stocks were banned. Crumbs!

Some polling shows that 96% of Americans favor universal background checks on anyone purchasing a gun. Whether you are among the 96% or the 4%, I really don’t care, and your elected representatives don’t care either. My point is only to demonstrate unequivocally the degree to which we do not run our own government.   

The sad truth is that our “of the people, by the people, for the people” government is gone-zo. Our government now belongs to the political-money-corruption train and those that fuel it with their dollars.

Alternate Universes

There is something else that has me disheartened about America. I truly was not aware the degree to which our country is divided. Political differences between groups are nothing new but I don’t recall those divisions being this severe or penetrating so deeply into our everyday lives and specifically, our relationships. To get what I’m saying, think about the record high number of Facebook unfriend-ings that have occurred since Trump’s presidency began.

Politically, I’m on the side of truth, justice, and the American way. In other words, the liberal side of the spectrum. What I never realized before Trump was just how many Americans live in an alternate universe. For Trump to still be supported by a third of the country is so revealing. What it means is that roughly 100 million Americans have no habit of thinking critically and live in a media bubble where 2 + 2 = Frog. 

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America is going down because we’ve lost our democracy and all we have left is apathy on one end and rage on the other. I think of America now like a sports team on a losing streak that will never end. It hurts. It’s my team, man. Of course I love my team and will always want it to win. But now that multinational corporations and the super-rich have been able to slowly change the rules of the game in their favor, they have all but guaranteed themselves victory, while America as a whole suffers one heartbreaking loss after another.

There. I’ve done it. It’s written for all to see. What now? 

That last question I will answer in a future post called, The Night of the Avalanche. You don’t want to miss it.

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UltimateGaryB

Gary is a Solar Technician and writer living in Boulder, CO, who loves to play Ultimate frisbee!!

3 thoughts on “Down Goes America”

  1. This was a really good post. Lots of personal stories backed up with a little history lesson for context. Lovely. And really depressing, but well written.

    Like

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