What's the best way to fix the broken U.S. political system?
"You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." -- John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown.
How do you take over a "democratically elected" government? Here's a three-step recipe:
1) Control the media.
2) Control the nomination process.
3) Prevent the opposition from voting.
Step one: Six corporations own 90 percent of all media -- local media collapses
Back in 2011, someone named Jason the Frugal Dad created an infographic showing that six companies controlled 90 percent of U.S. media. In June 2012, Business Insider's Ashley Lutz updated the list. By comparison, 50 companies owned 90 percent of U.S. media in 1983.
At the same time, the decline in local media budgets means the press can no longer afford to cover local elections. This has led to a decline in "citizen engagement," according to research conducted by Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer Lawless of American University; Hayes reports on the research in a January 21, 2015, article in the Washington Post.
If you believe campaign finance reform is "one of the defining issues of our time," as stated in a January 23, 2015, opinion column in the Sky Valley Chronicle of Monroe, Washington (hurray, local media!), you may wonder why the major media outlets ignored the recent attempts by Congress to undo the affects of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.
The Sky Valley Chronicle column provides powerful insights on the current state of the media:
In an article from the May/June 1991 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, James Boylan concluded that "political reporting, like other reporting, is defined largely by its sources."
President Lyndon Johnson once said that "Reporters are puppets. They simply respond to the pull of the most powerful strings."
David Paletz and Robert Entman stated in their 1981 book Media Power Politics that "by granting elites substantial control over the content, emphases, and flow of public opinion, media practices diminish the public's power.... [T]he mass media are often the unwitting handmaidens of the powerful."
Step two: Control the nomination process
"I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating." -- William M. "Boss" Tweed.
Getting elected to (nearly) any national office takes a considerable amount of money. In 2013, the New York Times pegged the average cost of a House seat in 2012 at $1.6 million, compared to $753,000 in 1986. A U.S. Senate seat costs more than six times as much: $10.5 million in 2012, according to the New York Daily News reporting on an analysis of Federal Elections Commission data by Maplight.org.
"If anyone thinks that the issues of the economy, the minimum wage, overtime, job creation, climate change, education are not directly related to campaign finance reform, you are terribly wrong," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.)
A January 21, 2015, article by Paul Blumenthal of the Huffington Post describes eight of the 12 bills introduced by House and Senate Democrats that attempt to put the brakes on runaway corporate financing of the elections:
Some people might point out that true campaign-finance reform by Congress is unlikely so long as the Republicans are in charge. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig is a leader in the movement to reform campaign financing. Nick Reid of the Concord, New Hampshire, Monitor reports in a January 24, 2015, article on efforts by the New Hampshire rebellion to effect campaign-finance reform from the outside.
Lessig and others in the group have proposed the Democracy Dollars voucher program that would give a $50 voucher to each voter to contribute to a candidate who pledges to limit all contributions to $100. On the other end of the spectrum, Republican politician Jim Rubens proposes removing all limits on campaign contributions but requiring complete transparency. That way, the public could decide whether they wanted to support a politician who accepted huge contributions from corporations.
Also adopting the outside-in approach to reform of campaign funding is a group called the Young Turks, which is attempting through its Wolf PAC to call an Article V amendments convention to rein in Congress. The Young Turks argue that it is unreasonable to expect Congress to reform itself.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows the states to convene a convention to amend the constitution once two-thirds of the states agree to do so. Vermont, California, and Illinois have already done so, according to the group, and it plans to introduce similar bills in 20 other states in 2015, according to a January 18, 2015, article in the Concord Monitor.
Step three: Fewer and fewer eligible voters bother to exercise the franchise
Low voter turnouts favor Republicans: older, richer people vote more than poorer, younger people. That explains why Republicans have historically made it more and more difficult to vote. (Note that Eric Liu, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, argues in a November 10, 2014, article on CNN that Republicans may actually benefit by removing barriers to voting.)
But the decline in voting rates among young people and the working class has also made the Democratic party more conservative, due primarily to a decline of labor unions, according to The American Prospect's Sean McElwee in a January 30, 2015, article.
The percentage of wage and salary earners in the U.S. who are union members fell from 24 percent in 1973 to 11.1 percent today, according to UnionStats. In addition to contributing to wage inequality, the decline in union membership has led to a drop in voter turnout among the working class because union workers are more likely to vote than non-union workers.
Overall, the financial sector's influence on both parties has increased, while the unions' influence -- primarily on the Democratic party -- has decreased. That explains why Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has relied on corporations for the bulk of her campaign fundraising, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (paywall article).
The fix: Disenfranchise corporations
In a January 26, 2015, post entitled "Wall Street's Threat to the American Middle Class," Robert Reich lists the three changes that are needed right now:
1) Resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act (which used to separate investment from commercial banking).
2) Define insider trading the way most other countries do – using information any reasonable person would know is unavailable to most investors.
3) Close the revolving door between the Street and the U.S. Treasury -- and eliminate Wall Street financing of campaigns. Period.
It all starts by reforming campaign financing. And the only way to do that is to support the people who are working to end corporate control of the U.S. political system.
No such thing as 'anonymous' data'
Internet services frequently promise not to share your personal information with third parties in any identifiable form. That turns out to be an empty promise because their attempts to anonymize the data prior to sharing it are useless.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology research Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye was able to identify 90 percent of credit-card purchasers by correlating the "anonymized" metadata about the transactions with "random observations" about the purchasers that are readily available from outside sources, such as geolocated tweets and mobile phone apps that log the user's location.
Science Magazine's John Bohannon reports on the study in a January 30, 2015, article.
The team of researchers led by de Montjoye used what are called correlation attacks to pair the metadata with other sources of information about the purchasers' day-to-day life. The process is called "differential privacy," and with the rise of big data and cloud computing, the practice is likely to become more common. That's why the researchers call for implementation of gatekeeper software that would allow the data to be used without imperiling individuals' privacy.
Harvard University computer scientist Salil Vadhan is quoted as saying, "If we can provide data for research without endangering privacy, it will do a lot of good.”
Coming soon (maybe): A long-overdue update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act
In a January 28, 2015, article on the Real Clear Policy site, U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah) write that they will soon reintroduce legislation that extends the protections of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 to email and other information stored in the cloud. If their proposal succeeds (no sure thing), a search warrant based on probable cause would be required for the government to access information stored online.
The Senators claim to have bipartisan support for the bill in both houses of Congress. The groups lining up to support the bill include Americans for Tax Reform, the ACLU, the Heritage Foundation, and the Center for Democracy and Technology. Not surprisingly, groups opposing the ECPA update, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, include the U.S. Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies.