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Why Our Broken Political System Falls Prey to Right-Wing Extremism

Thomas Ferguson explains how the polarization of our politics and the influx of corporate cash steer our politics to the right.

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LP: How did the 1994 Republican victory affect Congress itself?

TF: When Gingrich won control of the House, he installed what amounted to a pay-to-play system internally, which forced individual representatives to compete to hold their positions on key committees and leadership posts by raising funds for the party. The effect on the House was far-reaching, because the seniority system was already pretty much dead as a result of reforms in the seventies. The movement to limit the terms of committee chairs also worked in this direction, because it meant that more posts were coming open on a regular basis. What happened was that the entire Congress became money-driven.
Positions on key committees, leadership posts — they were all being sold. The money collected then was poured into election campaigns, especially for so-called “open seats,” in which no incumbents were running and in doubtful races. The vast spending and noisy campaigns heated up the political atmosphere in and out of Washington, as the media transmitted the messages.

The Democrats looked at the Republicans’ pay-to-play system and basically decided to copy it. They did this instead of mobilizing their old mass constituencies. Today, as my paper documents, both parties are essentially posting prices for influential committee slots and leadership posts.

The Democrats’ decision to emulate the Republicans and follow the money shifts the system’s center of gravity to the right, as both parties frantically cultivate investor blocs. The result is the weird political world we live in. Behind the scenes, investor blocs and businesses maneuver for advantages in both parties. The system’s center of gravity moves to the right, checked only by the diminishing influence of unions and other mass political groups that retain some resources and influence on the Democrats. You end up with two “money-driven” parties. The parties are not identical, but they have this in common: They cannot possibly campaign only on appeals to investor blocs, so each party reaches out to select public constituencies to scrape together enough votes to win elections, in a sea of public cynicism.
Polarized politics is money-driven politics and political parties are first of all bank accounts, whatever else they do. More precisely, the current polarization of the system is the direct result of the Republicans’ attempt to roll back the New Deal and the way the Democrats responded. I regret to say I don’t see much chance that it will abate any time soon. The Obama administration’s failure to deliver “real change” has given the Republicans a new lease on life. Less than three years after the financial collapse, which handed the presidency and both houses of Congress to the Democrats on a platter, free market fundamentalism is back. Today Republicans look closer to rolling back the New Deal than they ever have. They are unlikely to see much reason to compromise; especially when the Obama administration, in the middle of trying to raise a billion dollars for the 2012 campaign, declines to press a strong defense of investments in people and regulation, not even financial regulation.

LP: Will the tsunami of money released by the Citizens United decision make polarization even more intense?

TF: Alas, the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms have been steadily watered down. The role big money plays in our electoral system was already grotesque before Citizens United, what with “527s,” independent expenditures, and other devices for spending without limits. But the Supreme Court’s decision sets corporations (and of course, any labor union that still has any resources) free to disgorge funds directly from corporate treasuries to campaigns, as long as the money is spent independently of candidates’ own campaigns. Much of this money is likely to be impossible to track in public. But it will find its way into campaigns, raise the stakes, and set off further rounds of campaign spending. It’s just going to make the carousel rotate faster. Yes, polarization is likely to persist.