Burying Corruption Under Layers

August 13, 2015

The corruption of American democracy has become a well-known and undeniable truth about the state of affairs in the United States. Americans have intuitively perceived for some time that moneyed interests have a disproportionate influence on government policy, and that intuition has now has empirical support as reported in a 2014 article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, who have found “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [1] Of course, “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.”

The remedies that have been proposed for this state of affairs have included publicly financed elections. As tempting as that proposal may be, it suffers from two shortcomings.

The first is that, even if contributions to campaigns were eliminated, it would probably be impossible to reign in political speech in favor of candidates by persons not associated with campaigns without running afoul of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, even if such persons were wealthy or well-financed. Much has been said in recent times about not permitting corporations to engage in any sort of political speech, but any provision like that could easily be circumvented by wealthy individuals pooling their funds for political purposes outside of a corporate structure.

The second shortcoming is that representatives, especially on the federal level, represent too large a constituency to make most citizen voices audible. For this reason, the more prominent members of society would retain a level of advantage in getting their views heard by representatives, simply because of their visibility and prestige.

Public financing of campaigns is probably the most democratic proposal extant using existing governmental structures. But given these flaws in the proposal, and assuming that maximizing democracy is the goal, it appears that structural reform of some kind will be necessary.

According to Fred Foldvary, who is on the economics faculty of San Jose State University, the “basic problem is the way we elect our representatives. Our system is mass democracy: a large mass of voters elect a Congressman or Senator, or the President. The voters don't know the candidate personally, so the candidate relies on advertising in the media to project a favorable image. This costs money, and the special interests are happy to contribute the funds.” [2] But since “the key problem is mass democracy, the only remedy is to change it to small-group democracy,” whereby every election would “take place in a small group,” which “would eliminate the need for mass media, and therefore the need for mass campaign funds, and thus the opportunity for special interests to buy out the election.”

The method would be something called “multi-level voting.” Cities and counties would be divided into small neighborhood districts. Each district would elect a council. These council members would elect one of themselves to a higher level council “made up of a dozen neighborhood districts.” This next level of councils would, in turn, “elect members to the next higher level, and this” would continue “on up to the representatives to the city council, state legislatures and Congress.”

Astute Bible students will notice a similarity between this plan and the one suggested to Moses by his father-in-law, where he told him to set over the Israelites “officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens,” so that Moses would not be overburdened. (Exodus 18:13-26) There is, after all, much wisdom to be found in Scripture.

Jack Quirk 

Biblical quotations are from The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.