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Why Things Don’t Work — and How They Can Again

June 25th, 2012 - 9:31 am

There’s convergence in the air.  Not long after reviewing James DeLong‘s book, Ending ‘Big SIS’ (The Special Interest State) and Renewing the American Republic, Leo Linbeck III has sent a link to his new article in the American Conservative, Why Congress Doesn’t Work.  The article gathers many of the themes Linbeck has made in this and other places into a single coherent whole.

Readers of this site can probably guess what it says. Linbeck’s article argues that the incumbents have captured the government and through it the special interests have captured the purse and power over the nation, a conclusion he shares with James DeLong. Where the two works are different (apart from length as DeLong’s piece is a book) is that Linbeck provides a far more detailed action plan that does DeLong, who in turns provides a far more extensive scholarly and philosophical discussion than does Linbeck for the actions proposed.

In explaining his action plan, Leo examines each attempt at reforming the system (people have known it has been broken for a long time).  He looks at curtailing gerrymandering, enlarging the house, instituting term limits, and “reforming campaign finance” and concludes that none or even all of these together will do the job.

Interestingly Linbeck comes to the same conclusion as DeLong on campaign finance: Citizens United, rather than being a vehicle for corporations to dominate the fund raising process is actually one of the few steps taken in recent times to break the actual financial stranglehold the incumbents have girded the system with. Here is how DeLong put it:

The complex campaign finance regulations thus create a barrier that excludes from the political arena any companies that want to support broad pro-market policies that serve the public interest rather than their own narrow profit.

So, welcome to the bizarre world of campaign finance reform, where one important goal is to exclude anyone who lacks corrupt motives.

You might also believe, as a result of tides of propaganda, that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which upheld the free speech rights of corporations, was a decision for “business”. In fact, Citizens United itself is a nonprofit organization that, according to its mission statement, “seeks to reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security”. It depends on contributions from like-minded citizens. It is a corporation only because almost all organizations in America are so-called corporations. The four justices who would have denied corporations the rights of free speech in Citizens United actually voted for more corruption, not less, via the permanent ensconcement of Big SIS.

But having surveyed the terrain, Linbeck segues directly to the field of action. He defines true reform as effectively shifting the question of “who decides” from ‘Washington’ back to the voters. “The real conflict in American politics today, which is not between the parties or between the right and the left, but between centrocracy and self-governance.”

That is illustrated in the graph below, taken from his article. Government is growing ever more distant — yet ever more powerful. Nor will it change.

Being Ruled From Further and Further Afield

Changing the narrative from left vs. right to centrocrats vs. citizens is a necessary step. But it is not sufficient: Congress will not happily give up its power. That power must be taken away. One way to do this is to turn one of their own advantages against them: primary elections.

The primary is the weakest link in the chain that keeps the centrocrats in control. If the objective is to break the feedback loop that leads to centrocracy, the primary is the place to do it.

And it is from this point onward that Linbeck’s article changes from a discussion to a practical roadmap.  What it describes next is not some theoretical plan for diminishing the power of the incumbents but the actual implementation of a real world plan.

That is because a number of people, including  Leo Linbeck III, have established an political action committee called the Campaign from Primary Accountability (CPA) to practice what they propose. It’s goal, according to Why Congress Doesn’t Work is to take down incumbents from both sides by challenging them in the primaries, where they are most vulnerable. In time Linbeck hopes that it will encourage both liberals and conservatives will throw off their respective encrustations. Then there will be frank political disagreement  in place of the bipartisan “fix”,  which is little more than the party of the incumbency serving itself.

A practical place for anti-centrocrats to start is by increasing turnout in primaries, which is abysmal. In 2010, about 12 percent of the voting-age population cast ballots in Republican primaries and about 8 percent did so in Democratic primaries. This is the tiny base on which the centrocracy rests. By encouraging people to participate in primaries—voting when the decision as to who represents them is actually made—citizens can restore accountability and bring the centrocracy to heel.

We are testing this thesis in the 2012 primary cycle. So far our efforts have been able to materially increase turnout in targeted primaries.

But increasing turnout is not enough: we also have to close the funding gap between incumbents and challengers. Only then will we create a truly level playing field that will force incumbents to pay more heed to Main Street than to K Street.

Ultimately the key to this long war will be attracting candidates from both parties to the self-governance movement. They will not have to abandon their party or policy preferences, but we will show them that they can win elections by siding with the citizenry against the centrocracy.

The centrocracy is the enemy. Bring it down, move decision-making closer to the people, and the real policy debates between left and right can begin. But this time, those debates will take place where they should: in the hearing rooms of the state legislatures, in town-hall meetings, in city council chambers, in neighborhoods and living rooms.

How has it done?

The Washington Post writes that  “so far, the super PAC created by the full-time businessman, part-time academic and father of five — including three adopted children — has helped defeat two veteran Republicans and two long-time Democrats, knocking out almost 65 years of combined House experience. Next up is the biggest target yet: Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the 41-year veteran who is facing a stiff primary challenge June 26.”  That is not bad.

But despite CPA’s early success and the compelling arguments of James DeLong a reasonable observer might wonder whether it is still a tilting at windmills. Perhaps the Campaign from Primary Accountability has slain a few dragons, perhaps DeLong has demolished a few narratives, but there are more hatchlings where they came from. Like the movie Alien, no decisive results can be expected unless the egg chamber can be discovered and the Alien Queen is destroyed.  Big SIS is enormously powerful. Can it possibly be defeated?

My own feeling is that against all apparent odds, the answer is “yes”. The efforts against the Centrocracy will be aided by the fact that the incumbents have been eating out the scenery. Big government is collapsing under its weight. They have created a fiscal debt crisis that will in time, starve them out. James DeLong quotes myself of all people in this regard, but expresses his doubts about my conclusions.

All things considered, the Ruling Class will resist any attack on its status right up to the point of serious crisis. Richard Fernandez of PJ Media attributes to members of the Tea Party the sentiment that “The sheer size of government was now working against it. The bureaucracies had drained the surrounds of sustenance and now, they were on the point of either finding new prey or cannibalizing each other to survive.” These commenters make a good point, though I question their timing. The zombies will eat everyone else before they turn on each other, so cannibalism will be the last resort.

In defense I would say in response to James DeLong’s doubts that the time a lot has changed in so short a time. The period of “serious crisis” may have already come. The moment has obviously arrived in Europe at least, as shown by conflagration engulfing the the Continent as the equivalent of the Federal Government, the European Union literally fights for its life against bankruptcy. It is true that zombies eat each other last.  But the zombies are already eying each other with hunger.

Perhaps the most important role that efforts like CPA and the Tea Party will fulfill is to serve as nucleus for other emergent events to form around. The spreading global crisis will be a period of widespread institutional failure but it must also be accompanied by renewal unless it is to become time of unalloyed destruction. The world needs new ideas; concepts on which rebuild.

Whether by coincidence or cross fertilization a set of ideas as exemplified by Linbeck and DeLong are arising in seeming convergence.  Much of it consists of a rediscovery of the forgotten bases  of popular legitimacy. The process is far from finished; it has far to go. But it at last possible to say that it is fairly begun.


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