Political Polemics

by Daniel Briskin

With the ultimate mandate of giving a select few the power of making decisions for the masses, politics carry an inherent nature of polarity, as differing viewpoints compete for legislative, executive, and judicial power. However, in the current era of hyper-partisan American politics, elected officials can appear more interested in denigration of their opponent than in the advancement of domestic and foreign affairs. During election season, political attacks reach an apex as candidates clamor for voters. The competitiveness of election season, drawn out over a year-and-a-half presidential campaign, forms a divisive, counter-productive atmosphere that stymies the already troubled American political system. Ultimately, the drawn-out elections and political negativity create a legislative branch unwilling to compromise between opposing parties within it, or with the executive branch. All of this simply harms the American people, whose country doesn’t adjust to the ever-changing arena of global politics.

Harkening back to the start of the global recession, not much major legislation has been passed with bipartisan support. The first bailouts under President Bush were some of the last examples of major legislation supported by both parties, and that was only when the major financial institutions, both in the United States and throughout the world, were on the brink of collapse. Since then, most other major legislation has been blocked by the uncompromising attitude of the House and Senate. Healthcare reform was passed, in what could be called a weakened form (as it offers no public option for providing health care) only thanks to a Democratic super majority in Congress. Legislators have been forced to abandon other potentially groundbreaking legislation, such as attempts to regulate emissions via a cap and trade program.

One piece of legislation that has been passed is the raising of America’s debt ceiling. While this is a rare example of a law receiving bipartisan support, it is not a shining example of American domestic success—America’s credit rating was downgraded for the first time ever. The Budget Control Act (passed in conjunction with raising the debt ceiling), combined with the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, ultimately created the so-called fiscal cliff looming on the horizon, which has the potential to wreak havoc on the economy. The fiscal cliff could have been avoided if the specially formed bipartisan committee could have found compromise on financial issues. Instead, America races full-force toward a round of automatic budget cuts and concomitant economic pandemonium.

Political parties bear perhaps the greatest share of the blame for a lack of legislative success. The problems arising from having multiple parties quickly make themselves evident. George Washington, one of the least divisive and most beloved political figures in American history, knew these perils and used his farewell address to urge nascent America to avoid forming political parties:

“In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

Washington’s vision for a unified government almost immediately vanished as John Adams and his vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, were of opposing political parties. From that time forward, there have generally been two political parties dominating the realm of American politics. This centuries-old division has created a system in which one party can easily apportion blame to their opposition for any crisis that should befall America. In the past few years, the willingness of Party A to blindly blame Party B has destroyed civil dialogue.

A tremendous catalyst for negative rhetoric is the recent Supreme Court ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, more commonly referred to simply as Citizens United. This ruling states that corporations can spend unlimited money on elections. Because of the equation of money with free speech, to restrict money (such as donations to political organizations) would be to restrict free speech as granted to people under the First Amendment. The question may arise as to why, if it is people who are protected under the first amendment, corporations can spend unlimited money. The answer lies in the notion of corporate personhood: that corporations have some of the same rights as people. This syllogism—that spending money is speech, people are granted unlimited free speech, corporations are people, corporations are granted free speech, and therefore corporations can spend unlimited money to espouse their views—is probably not what the founding fathers intended when drafting the First Amendment.

This ruling, combined with super PACs, has changed the landscape of American politics. Political action committees (PACs) are a well-established vector through which interest groups voice their opinions. However, super PACs (technically called independent-expenditure-only committees) are able to receive unlimited contributions from both individuals and corporations. These funds may then be spent in unlimited amounts to advocate for an opinion or viewpoint. This unlimited spending contrasts with regular PACs, which are bound to stricter regulations on donations and spending. Whereas super PACs are not allowed to corroborate with candidates, often times a member of a candidate’s staff will quit the official campaign and go to work for a super PAC. So, although collaboration is not direct, or in technical violation of the law, it undoubtedly exists. Effectively, Citizens United and super PACs give candidates’ campaigns much more power in the form of money, while giving them much less accountability in their technical lack of association with their super PAC mouthpieces.

The array of problems in America’s political system has become engrained in the system so that fixing it will prove a massive challenge, but there is perhaps some light at the end of the tunnel. Even though billions of dollars were spent in total this past election, the super PACs did not always prevail, and spending doesn’t always equate with success. President Obama faced more than $375 million in negative spending from super PACs and other organizations. Democrats, although more successful than Republicans in this election, also spent vast sums of money, with little to show, barely maintaining the status quo.

Perhaps with the heat of the elections over, both sides can see that spending so much money doesn’t necessarily produce results. As some politicians fall victim to negative advertising of super PACs, those politicians have voiced their dissatisfaction with the super PACs. Thus, perchance, politicians will be motivated to pass campaign reform acts and to work together on legislation. However, real and effective campaign reform would take bipartisan legislation, and, in this current environment, such reform seems unlikely. Rather, next election, corporations and individuals may double-down, increasing their donations to campaigns, in hopes of buying their candidate electoral success. In the meantime, America will continue to stagnate on the global stage and American politics will remain plagued by petty, partisan bickering. In the end, it is the electorate, the American people, who suffer, and who are responsible for electing these unproductive legislators.

December 2012