“Congress shall make no law respecting…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights
We are Constitutionally empowered to redress the actions of our government, or its inaction, in matters both social and criminal. American activism is the quintessential expression of that guaranteed right.
Some put their talk to their feet, and march in protest. Some put their grievances to paper, press or keyboard, and some express with their wallets, either by withholding money through boycotts or by making it rain on a politician or a cause. The latter, it should be noted, has become a grievance in itself, for fear the Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon will give some voices an unfair advantage when it comes to petitioning for change.
Such is the case with the recent attacks by Democratic leaders on the obscenely wealthy, conservative buttresses, Charles and David Koch. “These two brothers are trying to buy America,” Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-Nevada) declared on the floor of the upper chamber, in late February.
Because they throw so much money at their robber baron agenda, laced with an unhealthy obsession against government and taxes, the Kochs have become an anathema to progressives and the liberal base of the Democrats. They also have the social sensitivity of Marie Antoinette.
“I guess if you make that much money, you can make these immoral decisions,” Reid added, in his chastisement of the pair’s funding of a group that is airing deliberately misleading ads against Democratic incumbents who voted for the Affordable Care Act. He said the commercials demonstrate that the Koch brothers may have money, but they “have no conscience and are willing to lie” to push their agenda.
“The Koch brothers are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine,” he said. Why such a nationalistic pejorative for two men just trying to lobby their government? Because Reid fears that policy in this country is made by the wealthy, and it is. But more about that below.
So why does Harry Reid bother putting statements like that on the record? That’s what one red state Democratic Senator wondered about the majority leader’s rant.
“If you’re trying to rally the base, the bases have already been rallied,” West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told Fox News, earlier this month. “The right and left bases have been rallied.”
It may be true that, as the Senator says, “There’s people (sic) who don’t like the extreme Democrat politics or extreme Republican politics,” but the money for the political parties is not coming from those people. It’s coming from the ones closer to the extremes, who have an issue with, and perhaps even an unhealthy anxiety and fear of, the opposing party gaining control of the policy arm of our country.
A recent study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University bears out that it’s the money that makes policy in American politics. The study finds “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
Reid’s purpose, then, is more of a direct appeal to “average citizens.” He cannot ask for contributions outright, from the floor of the United States Senate, so he rails against folks like the Kochs, to remind the left just what the they’re fighting against, and to get them to pony up. House Republicans do the same thing, but in a more subtle way, by casting vote after futile vote to repeal the ACA.
Despite President Obama’s calls, last week, for the Republicans in Congress to stop the repeal train and realize that “it’s well past time to move on as a country and refocus our energy on the issues that the American people are most concerned about,” the House has vowed to keep it going.
The president rightly pointed out that “these endless, fruitless repeal efforts come at a cost,” but not for the John Boehner (R-Ohio), Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and the rest of the House Republican caucus. Every one of those 50 times they’ve wasted the people’s time and money to hold one of those seemingly “fruitless” votes, it’s been anything but that for them, loading their campaign coffers with “speech” from conservative groups and tea party activists. The message to Congress is, hold a vote, get money.
As the university study says, “A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18% of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45% of the time.” The money is the message, and according to the Supreme Court, the message is the money. You can expect a similar tactic in the Senate, if the GOP gets control next year.
The two professors go on to warn, that their “analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts… [W]e believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Manchin, who considers himself a centrist, said it’s people like him who “have to start making something happen here in Washington to move this country forward.” That may be, but because of the Court’s decisions liberating campaign finance, it’s the extremists – and their money – who decide what moves on Capitol Hill. Centrists are left out in the cold. Except for a few organizations like No Labels and Third Way, there’s no place for the political centrist to have her valued voice heard, except, perhaps, by directly contributing to the candidate of her choice.
The American political system is not abiding those who politely decline to pick a side and stick with it, abhorring them for their unpredictability, but never shy to boast when they vote for the party favorite. That’s a bad thing, when the number of Americans identifying as independents is at its largest, ever.
If, as Manchin lamented about the partisan rhetoric pandering to the extremes, “we got to start being Americans again,” then we all must have equal power in redressing the Congress for our grievances. While this Court sits, that is unlikely, because our voice (money) isn’t “loud” enough to breach the Koch’s dam and reach Capitol Hill. But maybe it can have enough volume to reach Manchin’s Americans, and at least get them to vote for a future that preserves a role for government in helping sustain and improve people’s health and welfare. These used to be things reasonable people agreed on, but that’s when reason was free.