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The run up to the 2014 midterm elections has been notable in a number of ways: lackluster public engagement, high voter frustration with members of Congress, and lots of money in the mix. In fact, some have dubbed 2014 the most expensive midterm elections in U.S. history. Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, talks about these elections and the overall influence of money in politics.
Q. The 2014 midterm elections have been low-key compared to some mid-terms in recent memory. What are some of the factors influencing the media, as well as public interest in these elections?
Jarding: Well, I think that American voters are confused about a lot of things. Many of them have checked-out. We know, for instance, that in the greatest representative democracy the world has ever known, only one out of two eligible voters register and only about one out of two vote. It’s not a good sign.
People see that the last Congress was the least effective in U.S. history – only to be outdone by the current Congress – and meanwhile, people are struggling. We have more people holding two jobs today than ever. Education funding is down. Only one out of four American kids who graduate from high school now graduate from college. People are just trying to get by and they’re really turned off to politics. The danger is that now is the time where you need citizens engaged in politics more than ever. And we’ve got to figure it out as a country. The world still believes that America is a model and a beacon of hope, but we’ve got work to do.
Q. The New York Times had a provocative headline recently, “How Billionaire Oligarchs Are Becoming Their Own Political Parties.” So – money in these mid-terms – is it different?
Jarding: Oh, dramatically different. I would make the case that the Citizens United court case that was handed down on the 20th of January, 2010, was arguably one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history. The Supreme Court looked at a corporation and said, under a First Amendment free speech argument, that money is speech, and so ruled that even a corporation has a right to free speech – but, oh, by the way, they have more rights than you and I have because as individuals our campaign contributions are capped at $2,600 per primary or general election. That skews the equation. To put this in perspective: Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign raised $350 million in donations, on average of about $38 a contribution. The Koch brothers alone have pledged $300 million in 2014 to Congressional races.
There’s something fundamentally wrong with democracy when our Supreme Court says that we’re going to look at democracy differently to recognize a corporation, and by the way a foreign corporation, as well. That’s something that had been banned throughout U.S. history. So, not only are billionaires becoming their own political parties, they are powerful political parties. At least actual political parties exist in a state – they’re the Democratic or Republican Party in Massachusetts. They’re beholden to people. They have volunteers from Massachusetts that are going door-to-door, that are involved in campaigns. These billionaires are sitting in offices, who knows where, making decisions to write 10, 20, 30, and 50 million dollar checks to influence a campaign, and in some cases have never set foot into the state. It is the most egregious affront to representative democracy that I’ve seen in my lifetime. After 36 years of being involved in politics and 25 years of teaching, I can’t stress how serious it is. There is nothing that could be worse than unfettered money in politics, and that’s what we have in the United States right now. We’re on a path we do not want to be on.
Q. Have there been particularly competitive races around the country to watch?
Jarding: It seems as if there are fewer and fewer really competitive races. It’s another consequence, I think, of the money. On average, 98 percent of U.S. House members that run for re-election get re-elected, and 85 percent of U. S. Senators get re-elected. In almost all cases, they outspend their opponents. The system is rigged so that they can collect more money and, as a consequence, the pool of competitive races just seems to shrink every year. To give you an idea: in the U. S. House where there’s 435 members up every cycle, every two years, there’s usually only about 25-40 competitive races. So, maybe 10 percent that are competitive, and many of those are open seats. There’s something wrong with that. In the U. S. Senate where you have 33 or 34 seats up every cycle, you may get a half-a-dozen seats that are really competitive, a few more if there are retirements, maybe. So, again, the system seems rigged against fair and free elections.
Q. How likely is it that after these midterms we will end up with a more functional Congress?
Jarding: It’s virtually unlikely. The money in politics is playing too great an influence. When Fritz Hollings retired from the Senate ten years ago, he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he described a broken system in which senators were spending more and more time raising money and less and less time legislating. He wrote about the fact that he barely attended committee hearings except to vote and the reason was that he had to raise $30,000 a week, every week, for six years to raise enough money to run for re-election in South Carolina. That was 10 years ago. That is a broken system. These guys aren’t listening to witnesses in committees. They’re not getting up to speed on the issues. I know senators in Washington who have never participated in a committee hearing at all, much less a subcommittee hearing. That’s wrong. The system’s broken, and it’s all a function of money.
We’re never going to get money out of politics. I understand that. But we need a system that helps to level the playing field. Maybe it’s public financing; maybe it’s something else. But we cannot let money subvert representative democracy and that’s what’s happening today. It's a horrible story, but I believe that until we somehow get our arms around this money problem, we will not see any significant change in Congress.
Q. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “fixing the Electoral College” and fixing gerrymandering and other attributes of voting in America that are perceived as contributing to voter alienation. How likely are we to see any changes to the system in the near future?
Jarding: I like to consider myself as a fair optimist in most things in life, but here’s the problem: you've got the fox guarding the coop. I mean, these guys in Congress – when you have 98 percent getting re-elected in the House and 85 percent getting re-elected in the Senate, and they’re the ones writing the campaign laws – there’s no incentive for them to change the laws. The laws are working for them. They may not like the fact that they’re always raising money, but they become lifetime politicians and they make a pretty good living doing that. So, until we get the money out of the system then Congress isn't going to change. And the way it works now, I just don't think that Congress is going to be the body that changes the system. You’re not going to get two-thirds of the Congress to take money out of their own pockets, and threaten their own re-election. It’s not going to happen. You can try a Constitutional Convention, but God help us if we let these guys get their hands on the entire Constitution. So, that leaves the courts. And that takes time. So, again, it sounds very pessimistic because it is. I don’t see change happening anytime soon, but I’ll tell you what could make a change: the only thing that beats money in politics is votes. If people rise up, if people say this is enough, we’re not getting representation, we’re not taking care of our kids, we’re not given opportunities, we’re going to rise up and vote, then these guys will pay attention.
Now, in terms of gerrymandering, we can improve the ways that Congressional districts are redrawn. Iowa has a commission on gerrymandering that works wonderfully. Take the politicians out of it. Let’s not gerrymander this thing to try to help one party or another, let’s just create districts that offer the best representation. We ought to have a national commission that does that work.
In terms of the Electoral College – that one is a tougher one for me. I don’t necessarily like it. It certainly seems undemocratic and, yet, if you’re a small state with three electoral votes, the minimum – two senators and a member from the House – that may be as good as you get, and three votes might matter in an election, so maybe you’ll get some attention from a presidential candidate. So, I’m a little torn by this question because my fear is, if indeed we eliminate the Electoral College then you run the risk that presidential candidates may never set foot in some of the small states. So, that’s a tougher one for me, but the fact is the system’s broken. I think we need a national commission to help figure out how to rein in money, how we can gerrymander differently, and how we bring more people into politics. In terms of this last point, we must eliminate voter disenfranchisement so that the greatest number of people are encouraged to participate in the democratic process.
We just have to keep fighting. We have to find a way to make this work, there’s too much at stake. And arguably when government was working at its best, after the Second World War, and they were a legitimate player in this three-legged stool consisting of business, workers, and government, they were the independent arbiter. Yes, they regulated both labor and industry. America worked pretty well. When government pulled itself out of that system, all of a sudden things started to change; we quit investing in people, in education, in health care, and all kinds of things, and we’re reaping the consequences of that today. We owe it to our citizenry, to our ancestors, to those people who fought to make this a better country, to stand up and say, “we’re going to invest in our people again.” When we do that, we have the capacity to lead the world. Right now we are going in the opposite direction, and we must change that. But it takes leadership, and it takes guts, and it takes people to stand up and demand change.
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Jarding: I don’t want to be a broken record, but I think it begins and ends with money. There was a great line in the movie Jurassic Park, where Richard Attenborough plays this kind of mad scientist who figured out how to bring dinosaurs back to life after 60 million years. At one point in the movie, another scientist asks Attenborough, “How’d you do this? How did you bring these dinosaurs back after 60 million years?” And Attenborough gets this kind of funny grin on his face and he says, “Oh, life finds a way.”
That’s the problem in politics, is money finds a way. We have to learn how to control it. I really think that will be the untold story of this election when they’re expecting now somewhere between four and five billion dollars spent in this off-year election; unprecedented, unheard of. If we don’t figure out a way to rein that in, if Americans don’t stand up and say, we can’t keep doing this – let me give you another statistic that sums this up pretty well: they estimate that two-thirds of television advertising that’s running in every Senate race in America, on average, two-thirds are being paid for by outside groups. In states like North Carolina, 90 percent are paid by non-North Carolina groups; very often a small group of people, about 144 of them, that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to impact elections, very often selfishly, for their own interests. When that happens and the people in these states do not have a voice of their own, when their little bit of money now is trumped by one person or one small group of people’s big money, you’ve got a system that is askew, a system that has run amuck, and we cannot sustain it.
You wonder why some of these big issues aren’t dealt with – from global warming to income insecurity, overpopulation. I can lecture on this for hours, on why we need leaders to deal with those issues; it’s not happening out there. And, yet, we wonder why people are turned off. And the danger is, the only way to trump money in politics – and some of these groups are spending money to trump it on their own, I get that – but the only way to trump money, truly, is through votes. So, we have to figure out how, in this climate, when people are kind of naturally and unfortunately turned off, that we’ve got to turn the tables and say, now’s the time where you have to get involved. Now is the time you have to step up. Your voice can beat money, but only your voice. You have to step up, you have to vote, you have to make your voice known. If you do that, I believe still, optimistically, we can take it back, but we are on a very dangerous, slippery slope, and we need leaders to bring it back.
"Money will be the untold story of this election; they’re expecting somewhere between four and five billion dollars spent in this off-year election; unprecedented, unheard of." —Steve Jarding