Big Money Politics Helps Produce Political Extremism

People have been complaining about the corrupting influence of political contributions forever, and it is true that the escalating costs of running for state and national political offices have turned our elected officials into full-time fundraisers—for themselves. Given the many millions of dollars it might today cost to campaign for a Congressional or Senate seat—and setting aside the astronomical $850 million spent by the two major party candidates during the 2016 Presidential race—it is apparent that we now have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

It is an open question just how much of the daily struggle of the average American actually gets through to candidates who are cosseted by campaign contributors handing them gobs of money. This does not become less of a problem after they are sworn into office. Upon being elected, officials immediately start to raise the dollars necessary to hold their seats, eclipsing the daily work on behalf of constituents—whose troublesome needs eat into the time that must be spent raising campaign funds.

However, the power of incumbency at least makes raising money easier because political favors now can be granted in exchange for campaign contributions, which are certainly a pernicious form of peculiarly legalized bribery. As the costs of political campaigns keep increasing, the importance of your opinion to your elected representative is ever more related to the size of your bank balance, the “pay to play” politics that disgusts most Americans. We are, sad to say, now all forced to live by the Golden Rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”

There is, however, another problem beyond the capture of our political institutions by wealthy individuals and interest groups—and it is helping to tear apart our nation.

Campaign fundraising used to be built around two basic appeals. On the one hand, you could attempt to appeal to the more elevated human traits of empathy or sympathy. An example of this approach might read as follows:

“Your contribution will give this puppy a warm bed tonight.”

Of course, if you really wanted to motivate potential contributors, a more crisis-laden approach was often more effective:

“Unless you contribute, this puppy will die tonight.”

If, however, you are running for political office today and need oodles of money in order to compete, a more sensationalistic and confrontational approach is preferred:

“UNLESS YOU CONTRIBUTE, MY OPPONENT WILL MURDER THIS PUPPY TONIGHT!” 

See the problem? The ongoing need for cash to keep today’s mega-million dollar campaigns afloat inevitably pushes all political discourse to the extremes because this is what best motivates contributors. Candidates can no longer afford to be gracious, reasonable, or moderate. All political opponents are now by grim necessity depicted as horrible brutes, and all opposing policy ideas are certain to result in lingering death, massive destruction, and the breakdown of civil society—because to say otherwise would not persuade anyone to write a check. Every election cycle is now Armageddon—the ultimate confrontation between good and evil—and each campaign season only further reinforces these venomous attitudes.

Big money politics have, of course, become an even worse problem over the years because of both inane Supreme Court decisions that have privileged wealthy donors and the sheer recalcitrance of officeholders who love the fundraising opportunities of incumbency and are allergic to reforms. However, reform we must if we are to have any hope of rescuing our nation from extremist politics and speech because campaign cash does more than just buy influence: It is itself a major driver of the political extremism that is both stalling our political processes and sidetracking legitimate national needs—all the while turning neighbors into enemies. Unless we can find a way to reduce the extraordinary costs now associated with political campaigns, we are likely condemned to yet more divisive and damaging political speech that will continue to hollow out the shrinking center of our national dialogue.

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Is President Trump “Gaslighting” The Democrats?

The Democrats have stuck to a single, overriding narrative since Donald Trump’s stunning election last November: This man is crazy. I am beginning to suspect that this viewpoint might be missing by a mile—he could, in fact, be crazy like a fox.

“Gaslighting” is a slang term derived from the famous 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and its various definitions boil down to this: Engaging in actions designed to drive someone insane through misdirection or intimidation. As unseemly as it was to the political class who considered him an oafish outsider with no chance of winning, Donald Trump proved to be a master of manipulation during the primary and general election campaigns, driving his opponents to the heights of exasperation with derisive nicknames (“Little Marco” and “Crooked Hillary” spring immediately to mind), inflammatory Tweets, and barbed responses designed to needle his opponents to the point where they became rattled and lost focus. We saw this strategy work again and again during both the Republican and Presidential debates. Few seemed to notice the method beneath Trump’s seeming madness—all the while assuring themselves he had no chance of winning—and were shocked when he vaulted over the aghast political establishment and won the Presidency.

Not much has changed since Donald Trump took his place in the Oval Office. In fact, both Republicans and Democrats have often been confused and unamused because President Trump has seemed to go out of his way to pick fights where conflict could easily have been avoided. Very often these fights were over relatively inconsequential matters, the size of his crowd at the Inauguration being a perfect example. Many Executive Orders, such as Trump’s attempts to restrict immigration from mostly Muslim countries, were typically seen as red meat thrown to his slobbering base of “Deplorables”, and immediately provoked a race to the courthouse by his opponents to seek restraining orders, which were promptly and repeatedly granted. Trump’s efforts to “repeal and replace” Obamacare have also proved a slog that still has many difficult and rocky challenges ahead—with no guarantee of victory. Every time Trump has been proved wrong or stopped in his tracks, the Progressive Left has chortled knowingly—certain of their ultimate victory over this buffoonish upstart.

However, I am beginning to wonder if we are seeing the greatest long game in recent Presidential history unfold before our very eyes.

First off, President Trump’s words, actions, and demeanor have served to transform the loyal opposition into the unhinged opposition. The shouting and foot stomping of the self-styled “Resistance” have only served to marginalize the Social Justice Warriors, and many on the Left have become so incensed that they have abandoned all nuance or objectivity when proclaiming their undying opposition to Donald Trump and the very air he breathes.

Engaging in continuing venomous attacks on anyone who might appear to be the least supportive of a position taken by Mr. Trump wins very few new allies, and completely abandoning any pretense of conversation and compromise has likely further weakened the Democrats. For example, recent Democratic rants about purging the party of pro-lifers, which some polls indicate comprise fully 25% of the party’s supporters, is a fantastically self-destructive exercise that only makes sense to those who have lost any ability to respect differing opinions. Vindictive rage is never going to help anyone make new friends or influence people, and the fact that not everyone seems to share their seething anger has prompted many progressive Democrats to hurl yet more inflammatory accusations at the average American regarding their ingrained racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and overall awfulness. Seems like a pretty dumb way to win over hearts and minds—so score one for Mr. Trump when the 2018 midterm elections come around.

In addition, it is only now becoming apparent to many that, off the radar and with little fanfare, President Trump has been reviewing, vetting, and prepping a huge slate of nominees for federal judgeships.

How big of a deal is this? Really big, I would say. During his entire 8 years in office, President Obama put roughly 329 judges on the federal bench; at this moment, only a few months into his term, President Trump already has over 120 vacant seats to fill. In four—or perhaps eight—years Donald Trump could put a conservative stamp on the federal courts that could last for the next forty or so years. Add to this the likelihood that Trump will likely nominate at least two more Supreme Court Justices, and it quickly becomes blindingly clear that while so many were marching around the nation wearing silly hats and chanting about “crazy Donald”, he was quietly laying the foundations of a judicial revolution. I am not entirely certain how this will play out in the long run, but President Trump is quickly transforming the political DNA of America. Although his vociferous political opponents will insist that this transformation is more akin to a cancerous mutation, our entire national conversation has shifted in a startlingly short period of time.

Which brings us to the recent firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey.

We are very much in the “too soon to know” phase of whether this is simply bare-knuckled Washington politics or something more nefarious, but one need only read the Chicken Little commentaries in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Salon—or listen to the apocalyptic press conferences on Capitol Hill—to know that President Trump has once more driven his political opponents to dizzying heights of indignation. What, of course, is yet more frustrating for the Democrats is that they have been yowling for Comey’s scalp for months because he “threw” the Presidential election to Trump with his somewhat bizarre investigative techniques surrounding Hillary Clinton’s email scandal—so the Democrats end up seeming to disagree simply to disagree. It must be maddening to now be defending the very man whom you believe cost your party the White House, and this seems to me to be yet one more example of President Trump driving his opponents stark raving mad with his actions.

If they keep on in this manner—the Democrats huffing and puffing and trying to blow down President Trump—the symbol of the Democratic Party might soon need to change from a donkey to a straitjacket. It is impossible to maintain this fever pitch of rage for long before average Americans will begin to start tuning out the overwrought rhetoric and getting on with their daily lives. Unless Trump’s political opponents can very soon find some scandalous fire to justify all their enraged smoke, the Republican Party—with Donald Trump in the lead—is going to roll right over the exhausted and disheartened Democrats in 2018.

Gaslighting, indeed….