Washing the Stink out of Politics

My father is in local government for the small town in Pennsylvania where I grew up.  His position is appointed by the elected town council so we didn’t have to deal with campaigning to keep his job, but this did mean that, at the whim of the council members, he could have found himself unemployed.  Luckily, he’s good at what he does and various members of councils for the last few decades have kept him in the position he’s held for much of his adult life.

I remember while growing up that his stories of council meetings and the issues that they dealt with were fascinating in a lot of ways.  Here was a group of people working together to try to solve the problems of my own little home town.  Back when I never imagined ever moving away from home, I always thought I’d run for council one day and be one of those people.

Then, after leaving home for college and then leaving college for another state almost a thousand miles away from home, I began to wonder if a “normal” person like myself could dream bigger than town council.  While there are a variety of hurdles to overcome before such a thing might happen and, even if it does, I suspect my chances would be fairly poor regardless of what “level” of public service at which I attempt to enter, there’s one thing that keeps me from taking the plunge into either local or non-local politics:

Other politicians.

While Rachel Maddow’s biases are fairly well know, her report above does detail some problems being faced by California democrats.  In it, she briefly mentions some recent scandals from the other side of the aisle.  There are a lot of reasons why a politician might be or become corrupt, but I think most of them stem from money.  CNN reports that the cost of running for the US House of Representatives has increased by 344% since 1986 to a cost of $1.6 million.  Want to be an US Senator?  Better have $10.4 million on hand because that’s what it cost in 2012.

This creates a fairly large barrier of entry to national politics.  I suspect the costs decrease proportionally to the scope of one’s influence, but even local elections can cost quite a bit depending on your location.  City council in rural Pennsylvania is going to be far less expensive than in New York City, for example, but it’s hard to deny that you need to have or raise quite a bit of money if you want to be a public servant.

But, what does having a lot of money do to a person?  Luckily, a recent TED talk by Paul Piff, a post-doc at UC Berkeley, helps to answer this question.

In short, Mr. Piff has found “that increased wealth and status in society [leads] to increased self-focus and, in turn, decreased compassion, altruism, and ethical behavior.”  By “self-focus,” Piff literally means that as a person’s wealth increases, e tends to focus mostly on emself and less on others.

So, if being a politician requires one to have a lot of money and if having a lot of money can result in a reduction of that politician’s empathy and if the cost of elections is only going up (as seen in the above-linked CNN report), what we have is the makings of a fairly serious situation.

So, what can we do about it?  Lawrence Lessig has a few thoughts on the matter:

I’ve come to believe that, at least in the case of politics, money is the root of many of our problems.  Lessig agrees.  In fact, he’s founded a group called Rootstrikers to help fight the corrupting influence of the vast, vast sums of money that it takes to grease the wheels of our political system.  But, it’s not the only one.  Other groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, and the Sunlight Foundation all share similar goals.

Obviously, the easiest–and somewhat ironic–way to help these organizations is with a donation.  They’re work costs money, after all.  But some organizations, like Rootstrikers mentioned above, have smaller, specific campaigns that you might be able to help out with in ways other than a cash donation.   Some are as simple as sending a thank-you to members of congress who take action that you support!

Granted, these organizations mostly (perhaps only) focus on the US national government.  Plus, maybe using grassroots efforts to try to effect hierarchical change is not the way to go.  But, it’s a way to get involved and Common Cause, for example, breaks its activities down to the state level as well, though the efforts are often still aimed at changing the culture of Washington, D.C. and hoping that this creates further systemic change elsewhere.

As we prepare for the 2014 mid-term elections, we also have to prepare for the inevitable cries by politicians and the semi-autonomous Super PACs trying to reach into our pockets.  In the past, I’ve donated my own hard-earned dollars to various candidates, usually through the ActBlue platforms on some election cycles.

This time, I’m going to put what I can afford toward what I perceive to be a better use: supporting those who seek to reform our system and reduce the influence of private funds has on our politics in the hope that, one day, we may see publicly funded campaigns.

Maybe you could do the same?

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