In many ways Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington has become an allegory for the how the “common man” can go to Washington and make a difference. Yet when the “common man” looks at those who are running for public office especially national offices like the presidency, the “common man” is nowhere to be seen. I myself like many other voters have a hard time feeling that multi-millionaires can understand and empathize with the daily trials and tribulations of the majority of the population of the United States.
In many ways, the general populous is jaded with the current system because of the inordinate influence of monied interests on politics. The pursuit of business and monetary gain isn’t wrong, but one has to question how the very pursuit of is influencing elections away from the thoughts, minds, and general beliefs and well-being of the “common man”. This is not just some preconceived notion of the my own mind, but it is a phenomenon that is very much persistent in our political structure. Just look at the current top of the field GOP presidential candidates. Second time candidate Mitt Romney has an estimate net worth of $190 million to $250 million and outside of his time as Governor of Massachusetts, he hasn’t had a real job since 2007. His millions were made as the co-founder Bain Capital, a private equality firm that manages approximately $65 billion in assets. How many of the “common man” can be unemployed for four years and launch a credible and financially stable bid to be president of the United States? The other top-tier GOP candidate Newt Gingrich has had a different background of how his money was made compared to Romney, yet has a net worth estimated to be about $7 million (President Obama’s net worth is about $5 Million). While this is dwarfed by Romney, Gingrich’s net worth far exceeds what the “common man” makes in a lifetime let alone in a year.
None of the above is to disparage any man or woman’s personal success. However one does have to question when one is that wealthy and has been wealthy for an extensive period of time ( in some cases their whole lives), how in touch are they with the needs of the mother of four that works double shifts to make sure that food is in the pantry? Does a candidate like Jon Huntsman (estimated net worth $16-$71 million) really understand the issues that a husband deals with as he works four jobs to pay a mortgage and support a wife who has been actively looking for a new job since her position was phased out due to corporate mergers almost two years ago? The general concurrence would be no! How could they understand? The perceived and relative out of touch (let us say disconnected) condition of many of those that seek political office leave many voter to simply throw their hands up in surrender. Unfortunately this disconnect is only part of the problem.
While the blatant disconnect between those that we elect and ourselves is obvious, the inherit and perceived driver of elections, politics, and the resulting policies is not the people’s will but the profits of capitalism. Many cite the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission as a watershed moment in American politics that virtually allowed endless amounts of corporate money to enter the political process through super political action groups (PACs). Supers PACs many be the focus of scrutiny now, but money has always found its way to those in political power. Running for office takes money. Anyone that runs for office knows that counting on those single mothers or over worked husbands are not going to get them the financial support that they need to run an effective election in this day and age.Big business, corporations, and the super wealthy will always be there to influence the process as long as our elected officials are in need of more money than the multitudes that man up the “common man” can provide.
As we throw our hands up, disenchanted with the process and feeling marginalized because our vote has been so corrupted by the influence of endless streams of corporate dollars many wonder (including myself) if this will ever change. While no one can wave a magic wand to make the current issues in our system of elections go away, if we implement the following steps chances are that we will be better off and ultimately one step closer to having elected officials that are truly representatives of the people.
As a member of Congress (particularly the House of Representatives) you are always in campaign mode. It is totally understood that one cannot get anything truly and definitively accomplished in a mere on term in Congress, however there is no reason that any person should dwell in the hall of either house of Congress for more than a generation. Between is short stint in the House of Representatives and is tenure as Senator, the late Robert Byrd was in Washington a total of 57 years. To but that in a person perspective, Sen. Byrd was first elected before both of my parents were born (1955 & 1958 respectively). Such longevity breeds a progressive disconnect from the “common man” and is a gross abuse of the political system. Also with the exhaustive task of running a re-election campaign always looming over head, many elected officials are forced to spend most of their time fundraising instead of governing. In order to eliminate these cracks in the system, term limits should be instituted for the legislative branch. Twelve years (2 terms Senate & 6 terms House of representatives) is more than enough time for any elected official to learn the legislative process and become an effective representative of their constituents. At the end of the day any sitting president only has the opportunity for 8 years or two terms, why should Congress be any different?
As stated with the advent the Citizens United, corporate spending is at an all time high. Candidates a perceived frontrunners and favorites not because of the amount of public support that one garners, but because of the amount of money that they have been able to obtain through fundraising. What does one’s ability to govern fairly and effectively have to do with their ability to fundraising? Absolutely nothing! Fundraising or the influence that effective fundraising brings can often time over shadow legitimate ideas and policy positions. Allowing individuals and corporations to donate via taxes to a public financing fund would eliminate the influence that often arises from the current structure. A set amount would be given to those candidates that qualify during the primary season. The remaining fund being equally divided amongst the candidates during the general election.
When some speak about the apparent problems with our political structure, many site the current dominance of the the two party system as one of the main culprits. While many arguments for and against the current system have merit, the biggest problem is the current state of primary elections. While some states allow any registered voter to vote in the primary for either party, many restrict voting in primaries to those that are registered with the affiliated party. This in effect disenfranchises those that are registered as independents (and those of the rival party when they don’t hold a primary). Primaries should be open to to all registered voters. In theory, this would allow more mainstream candidates and ideas to spring forth during primary season. It would also allow more of the electorate be involved in the process earlier.
Can Mr. Smith still go to Washington? In many ways this is the true question of our political system. In a system that is designed to be for the people and by the people, the people have been replace by the dollar. Only when the people and their interest become the focus of the system again will Mr. Smith be able to go back to Washington.