News & Politics

Thomas Ferguson: How to Take Back Our Political System From the 1%

Ferguson outlines bold measures to stop the tsunami of money that threatens our democracy, starting with a Constitutional Amendment.

The following has been adapted from a version of a speech delivered to Occupy Boston by Thomas Ferguson, the father of the "Investment Theory of Politics."

I’m honored to speak to you today about money and politics, but it’s not the first time I’ve been here. This is actually the third time I’ve visited your encampment. The first couple of times I walked around and looked at the signs. Many were priceless; the best tutorials I’ve ever seen on the subject of money and politics. My favorite was the one that advised that Congressmen and women should emulate NASCAR drivers and show us their sponsors. Another styled contemporary capitalism “socialism for the 1%.” And many sharply attacked the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which helped throw open the floodgates to the tidal wave of secret money that is now engulfing American elections.

I’m a social scientist, so I actually counted: about a third of all the signs that day had money and politics as their themes. It was obvious that you here at Occupy Boston and your colleagues in New York, Oakland, Chicago, and other cities have already grasped the heart of the problem of money and politics in America: that we live in a money-driven political system that works pretty well for the 1%, but no one else.

So I begin by thanking you for reminding the rest of us about what really matters: That our problem right now is not “the government.” And the task is not to dismantle the social achievements of the New Deal so that citizens can look on cheering as people who failed to buy medical insurance bleed to death or old folks whose pensions and home values collapsed in the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy lose their homes.

It is to force government to take account of the interests of the 99% of Americans who have been left holding the bag for bank bailouts, bonuses, and corporate welfare as they scramble to find jobs and dig themselves out of debt. The state has to be rescued from the clutches of the 1% and made responsive to the interests of the broad public.

I know that you’re getting all kinds of advice about programs and what to do next. I’d rather not join that parade. I want to make a few remarks about political money, but my first suggestion is that you just take your time. Think through the situation and don’t get excited about heated demands for immediate “programs."

You are powerfully influencing American politics just by directing attention to the 1% and big money’s hold on American politics. It is a message that makes the establishments of both political parties and the mass media tremble, lest it transmit to the rest the citizenry, which is well aware that something is rotten, but not always sure exactly what is causing it.

Disregard claims that most Americans don’t yet have a clear view of you. In the U.S., many attempts to describe public opinion by analyzing polls are really barely disguised attempts to influence it. The lesson I extract from the early polls is that to the extent most of Americans hear about you, they like your movement. They share your rage at the banks and Wall Street and a political system in which both major parties demand more and more austerity.

Only weeks after you surged in the streets, your numbers are much better than the Tea Party’s. I would guess that in part that is because many Americans have favorably noted your culture of non-violence, tolerance, and respect for individual persons. The contrast with the cults of violence growing up elsewhere in the system is obvious and infinitely refreshing.

Now let’s talk for a few minutes about money and politics. Mostly I want to talk about possible remedies, but first a few remarks about the problem itself.

Firstly, the rot is very deep. In short pieces for the Financial Times, the Washington Spectator, and some scholarly work, I’ve focused attention on the way both parties in Congress now “post prices” for committee slots, chair positions, and leadership posts. Congress today is all too reminiscent of Best Buy or Target: You want a committee slot or an important leadership post, you buy it. The result is a kind of arms race in contributions, which just gets worse over time. Most Americans don’t know this. When they learn it, they usually are disgusted.

Secondly, the astronomical sums politicians now collect to run for office define only part of the problem. As Rob Johnson and I documented in a paper, the disparity between regulators’ salaries and what you can make in the private sector has transformed our regulatory institutions (including the White House staff) into employment agencies for the industries – like finance – that they are supposed to regulate. This has nothing to do directly with running for office. It won’t be fixed by fixing campaign spending.

At the deepest level, it underscores the importance of your emphasis on equality. For the corruption of our regulatory institutions really reflects the workings of economic inequality in the government as a whole. At some point – and we’re past it – economic inequality begins to shade into political tyranny. Think tanks and policy institutes dependent on large sums of money may help conceal this, but they not only don’t stop it, they themselves are mostly part of the problem. There is no substitute for a popular movement if you want to keep democracy.

Now about remedies. First, let’s face it. We might as well be back in the Gilded Age. The Supreme Court appears determined to sweep away just about any impediments to big money’s sway in politics. I thus conclude that Dylan Ratigan and others who are campaigning to amend the Constitution to make it clear that the government has the power to regulate money in elections are right. I would not open Pandora’s Box by calling a constitutional convention; I would just try to move such an amendment through the normal process of passage by Congress and ratification by states. I would also be very careful about language. Potential threats to free speech are not fantasies; careless language could encourage tyranny. Any such amendment, I think, needs to make it clear that corporations are not to be regarded as natural persons and are not entitled to protections as though they were. But that’s not enough: we cannot have our political system dominated by a handful of super rich individuals.

Such an amendment also needs to write into stone the option of true public financing of elections. The central contention of my “investment” approach to party competition is that classical theories of democracy greatly underestimate the costs voters face in trying to control the state. Those costs are real; somebody has to pay them. Thus, in the real world, either we all pay a little or the 1% pay the whole bill and control the system.

The idea of a constitutional amendment daunts many people, because they usually take a long time to pass. But the Seventeenth Amendment providing for direct election of U.S. Senators passed remarkably quickly once Americans realized that the old Senate was then the seat of a “Millionaires Club.” I think we are approaching a time when something like that could happen again.

Whatever you think of that, some major measures clearly could be taken that would be easier to put across. There is no question, for example, that Congress has the right to make its own rules. If the Congress decided to ban representatives from accepting money from anyone with an interest in legislation before committees he or she sat on, for example, it could do that. Nobody’s speech would be infringed; only perhaps, our politicians’ lifestyles. Membership on the now ridiculously swollen House Financial Services Committee would plunge, but the improvement would be major.

States also have the right to force Super Pacs in their jurisdiction to disclose their contributors. In addition, the ability of these secret conduits to operate underground derives not just from Supreme Court decisions, but the determination of the Federal Election Commission not to enforce laws on the books. It is time to press for a truly independent FEC that would enforce the law. While of course, continuing to defend public financing from its legions of foes in legislatures and courts.

Obviously money in politics is not the only issue that merits your attention. Let’s not forget, for example, that Congressional Super Committee on the Budget reports very soon. It would be the height of irony if, as Occupy Wall Street develops, what remains of the social safety net from the New Deal disappears at Thanksgiving time. But in its short existence, Occupy Wall Street has highlighted the problems of money and politics in a way no other force in American society has. You have put your finger on the pivotal issue of our time, which is whether democracy in America can survive.

*This essay is adapted from Ferguson's talk to Occupy Boston on October 24, 2011.   

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of 'Golden Rule: The Investment Theory Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.'