It's obvious money and politics don’t mix, so what are we still missing?
After Trump failed to drain the swamp and H.R. 1 stalled in the Senate, we should look more closely at how corporate interests pollute the political process, and how it might look if we clean it up.
Donald Trump held some of the most controversial views of any U.S. president in history. Yet he held one view that was decidedly not controversial, a view most Americans — regardless of their political leanings — think is simply a fact: that our democracy is drowning in the flood of money coming from wealthy donors and special interest groups.
This was arguably the heart of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. It lived in three small words chanted over and over again by his supporters: “Drain The Swamp.” And Trump basked in it. He loved to describe just how dirty politicians really are, for all their fancy talk and high-minded ideals. Criticizing Jeb Bush at a New Hampshire rally, he said:
“He raises $100 million, so what does $100 million mean? $100 million means he’s doing favors for so many people, it means lobbyists, it means special interests, it means donors. Who knows it better than me? I give to everybody. They do whatever I want. It’s true.”
Trump said what few politicians were willing to say: that wealthy donors “don't give because they happen to be nice people,” but because they’re buying influence. Trump himself had done it and now, he claimed, he was the only one who could fix it. He was the only one who could stand up for the little guy and against the big corporate donors. Because he couldn’t be bought. He was already filthy rich.
“I don’t need your money, I never took any of your money, you have no control, bye bye.”
While his supporters were ecstatic to finally hear a politician describe what seemed so patently obvious — that politicians are beholden to the people who finance their campaigns — most other presidential candidates didn’t want to touch the topic. Of all the candidates, just three of them — Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump — accounted for 92% of the comments on this issue. (Of the three of them, Sanders spoke about it by far the most at 57.8%.)
Unfortunately, the media was also largely silent on this topic. Searching the internet today one finds little from that period, even though Trump’s comments on this issue (“when they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them… they are there for me”) were some of the most revealing moments at the first Republican debate.
And then, suddenly, Trump was president. Now was his chance. He had an open road to fix the broken system: create a commission to investigate all the needed changes, tweet those findings to the whole world, and then lean on Congress to pass meaningful legislation. Now was his chance to drain the swamp and give democracy back to the people.
And, for a moment, it seemed he might. Just a few days into his presidency he took his first step and signed an executive order to stop the revolving door between business and the executive branch. Now the people in his own administration, the people responsible for regulating different industries, couldn’t go work for those same industries for at least 5 years after leaving government.
And then? Nothing. No more reforms. No talk at all about the problem of money in politics. Nothing happened on this issue for 4 more years until Trump’s very last day in office, when, with absolutely no fanfare, he revoked his own executive order. On his way out of office he undid the one thing he had actually accomplished — he kicked away the door stop he had put in place, and started the revolving door spinning again.
Why is the tangled relationship of business and government so hard for us to tackle? It’s not like it’s a new issue. History is rife with crooked politicians peddling their influence to the highest bidder — for instance, “Boss” Tweed, the head of New York City’s infamous Tammany Hall political machine in the mid-1800s, who used an elaborate patronage system to control the city and siphon millions into his own pockets.
And it’s certainly not like Trump was the first politician to make a stink about this issue then fail to actually do something about it. Obama did the same exact thing. He made the same powerful denunciations during his campaign, signed a similar executive order when he got into office, then just never enforced it.
Why is this always the case? What are we missing? We can feel in our bones that this situation is a conflict of interest, yet we can’t seem to do anything about it.
A big part of the problem is just how tangled the relationship between business and government is. It’s been made mind-bogglingly complex. At times it feels like the Capitol is the least-fun version of Hogwarts imaginable, with a thousand invisible walls only lobbyists can pass through with money as their magic wand. It’s like the world’s most frustrating game of whack-a-mole — in the time it takes a lawmaker to shut one loophole in a law, a hundred new ones spring up.
And so we’ve thrown up our hands and left it to the experts. But that’s the problem. The system has been made artificially complex so that we’ll walk away. That’s the game.
I once heard an interview with a peanut industry lobbyist who admitted as much. He said (and I’m paraphrasing here): ‘We write the laws to be as complex as possible so no one can understand them. They’re so tightly knotted together that if someone wants to change them, they can’t. Only we can untie them.’
The time has passed when we should even try to untie such knots one by one. We need to cut through them. We need a new approach to this problem and, with it, a new approach to democracy. Democracy can’t be left to experts and special interests. It’s the “people’s house” — we need to know how it works and do our part in maintaining it.
To do so, we need to answer two questions: Why don’t money and politics mix? — and, How do we need to change our approach to democracy to safeguard against corruption? Ultimately these two questions hang together — we can’t answer one without the other — but I’ll only attempt the first one here. I’ll take up the second question in my next article.
The answer to the question of why money and politics don’t mix, appears, on the surface, to be obvious: they don’t mix because money corrupts. But, of course, that doesn’t get at the heart of the problem. Does money always corrupt? Do tax dollars corrupt?
What we really mean when we refer to “money in politics” is the unholy alliance between business and government (and specifically, business pulling the strings of government). This is the real problem: business and government don’t mix. But if we think this, then we also need to ask ourselves: What’s the right relationship between business and government? And the answers to that question are all over the place.
Take Trump for instance. His supporters loved the fact that he gave the real dirt on how government serves the interests of business. But at the same time they also loved the fact that he was, himself, a businessman. Why? Because U.S. conservatives tend to idolize business and vilify government.
The form of business that conservatives idolize is productive and entrepreneurial, but it’s also built on the very greed Trump exposed. Which means conservatives end up angrily condemning that greed and pragmatically nodding their heads as Trump boasts about not paying taxes (“That makes me smart”) and seeing a housing crisis as a good opportunity (“That’s called business, by the way”). They’re disgusted by the influence of business people on Washington and excited at the prospect of a business person running Washington.
That might make conservatives sound bipolar, but the progressive critique of the business-government relationship isn’t much clearer.
Liberals have a tendency in the opposite direction — to aggrandize government, to see it as The Solver of All Problems.
When it comes to money in politics, the most outspoken progressive has been Bernie Sanders (who, as a socialist, is farther left than most Democrats). In a 2012 interview with Stephen Colbert, Sanders passionately condemned the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to corporate funding of elections. But when pressed by Colbert, Sanders ultimately hinged his argument on the rationale that “corporations are instruments of government.”
But are corporations instruments of the government? What does it even mean?
It simply means that government is the main player in social life — it’s in charge of everything else. All the different institutions (businesses, hospitals, schools, etc.) are just the instruments, or arms, of this one… what? What should we call it? “Meta-institution”?
This is clearly an expansive view of government. One could call it “statist” in that it gives the state centralized control over social and economic affairs. But even though it might sound extreme, it’s not actually that strange or outlandish. We see governments nationalize industries and resources all the time — turning private assets into public ones — and many of us cheer to see the profits from, say, oil production, go to everyday people instead of fat cats. But that’s just the government taking control of business. That’s just statism at work.
So we can see that liberals tend to expand the role of government, giving it a greater hand in running business, whereas conservatives tend to shrink government — they want to see it run like a business. Who’s right though?
The first thing we should do is simply clarify the roles of business and government. They’re obviously two different things, but we’re not always so clear on how they’re two different things — we’re not clear on their boundaries — so it’s hard to keep them separate.
The state is, in fact, a kind of meta-institution. When we look out into society, we can see that it’s not at the same level as other institutions — it’s a whole realm unto itself. It includes all the institutions through which we regulate our rights and obligations (so the institutions of government, the laws themselves, and the police and military that enforce them).
But it only includes those institutions, not all institutions. This is most obvious in the U.S. context when it comes to religion — it’s why we have the separation of church and state. But we also need to recognize a similar separation elsewhere. In this case, with business.
Business is often just shorthand for another meta-institution — the economy. The economy is also clearly at a different scale than regular institutions; it too is a realm unto itself. It includes all those institutions that make possible the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities.
Whereas government oversees rights, the economy oversees goods. These are entirely different tasks.
Which, of course, is obvious, but still we constantly mix them up. We let government direct the economy and lobbyists write our laws. But why? On the one hand, it’s because we’re still somewhat fuzzy on the whole thing, but mostly it’s because we think these institutions are our own inventions, our own tools, and we can do whatever we want with them. We don’t think of them as having a lawfulness of their own. And it’s this that leads to so much of the chaos in society.
No one saw this problem more clearly than the early 20th century social thinker Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was born in present-day Croatia, which soon after became part of the newly founded Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a university student in Vienna he followed closely the workings of the government and would regularly go to watch parliamentary proceedings.
Years later, when the government dissolved following World War I, Steiner described its collapse as inevitable, even if the war hadn’t taken place. This was because it was composed of purely economic interests. (The lower house, which represented the everyday people, was comprised of four groups that were economically competitive with one another, so representatives were expected to fight for their group’s economic interests.)
This might make sense at first glance — government is, after all, where people fight for their interests. But Steiner saw that the situation was ultimately untenable because democratic impulses are fundamentally different from economic impulses. Here’s how Steiner described it in his article “Culture, Law, and Economics”:
A sphere of life calls forth interests arising only within that sphere. Out of the economic sphere one can develop only economic interests. If one is called out of this sphere to produce legal judgements as well, then these will merely be economic interests in disguise. Genuine political interests can only grow upon the field of political life, where the only consideration will be what are the rights of a matter.
With this, we come to the heart of the matter. We see that business and government are born from different sources. We don’t have to take Steiner’s word for it; we can follow them back in ourselves. When we observe these impulses within us, we feel how one springs from a concern for justice and the other for meeting needs.
So when economic interests are allowed a seat at the table, when they’re allowed a voice in determining what’s fair and just, the political process becomes twisted. It must. Here’s Steiner again:
Only when laws are made in a field where business considerations cannot in any way come into question, and where business cannot gain any power over this legal system, will the two [business and government] be able to work together in such a way that our sense of justice will not be violated.
When we allow economic impulses to masquerade as democratic impulses we can’t help but pollute the political process. We know this. It’s crystal clear that each person’s voice should have equal weight in a democracy, whether rich or poor. But with money you buy a bullhorn and without it your voice is reduced to a whisper, just a couple minutes of filling boxes on a ballot every few years.
Our sense of equality will only stand this so long. It will only be violated so many times before it pushes back. So, in a sense, the separation of economy and state is inevitable. It’s just a question of whether we make the transition through consciousness or chaos — through recognition (and making the necessary changes) or through revolution. Steiner goes on to say:
When the economically powerful are in a position to use that power to wrest legal privileges for themselves, among the economically weak will grow a corresponding opposition to these privileges. As soon as it has become strong enough, such opposition will lead to revolutionary disturbances. If the existence of a separate political and legal province makes it impossible for such privileges to arise, then disturbances of this sort cannot occur… Whoever wants to avoid revolutions should learn to establish a social order that shall accomplish in the steady flow of time what will otherwise try to realize itself in one historical moment.
Politicians would do well to heed this call.
What Steiner ultimately advocated for — what he saw as the healthy relationship between business and government — won’t make either liberals or conservatives happy.
Business shouldn’t have any say in political affairs. But neither should government have any say in actually running the economy (it should make the rules and referee the game, but not itself play). These realms should be autonomous.
Of course, liberals will fear that without government involvement, many needs won’t be met, but they forget that we could have very different rules to the game. Our property laws and labor laws simply haven’t evolved far enough. They’re still hostage to the interests of the wealthy.
To go into such topics here, though, takes us too far afield. The main point is simply that government and business are born from different sources and have different impulses. When one tries to artificially take up the task of the other, havoc ensues. We need to use the right tools for the right job. We need to recognize and respect the lawfulness of social life.
Now that we’ve at least caught a glimpse of the healthy relationship between business and government, we need to ask what kind of democracy could sustain and safeguard that relationship. It’s to this question that the next article will turn.