Left Snark, Right Snark

The Corruption of Our Democracy, part 3


With the use of computers and very precise neighborhood by neighborhood data – even household by household data – lawmakers carve intricate and fantastically convoluted districts to pack and crack: create a few districts and pack as many of the opposition voters into them, and then crack up the remaining opposition voters into districts where they can be easily outvoted. In the 2014 midterm elections, in both Pennsylvania and in North Carolina, democratic candidates got 44 percent of all votes cast for congress. Yet Democrats won only 27 percent of the seats in Pennsylvania and 23 percent in North Carolina.

Gerrymandering corrupts our democracy, and we could take steps to limit it. A computer program could draw district boundaries such that each district contains the same population and the sum of the lengths of the district perimeters is the lowest possible.


Corporations spend about $2.6 billion a year on lobbying expenses that they report. That’s 34 times the combined amount of all labor unions and public interest lobbying groups. The biggest companies have over 100 lobbyists – they are everywhere, all the time. Corporate lobbying influence has been growing and growing since the 1970s, and the domination of politics by business interests is now similar to what it was during the Gilded Age in the late 1800s. That’s a problem.

Those of you who stayed around last week to watch the documentary “13th” learned about ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s an organization of corporate interests that not only suggest general principles they’d like supported, but write the entire bill themselves and hand it to a legislator to introduce.

Perhaps investing more in congress to allow lawmakers to hire staff to do their own work instead of relying on lobbying groups would help.

Direct-to-Voter "Lobbying"

But, you know, it’s not just our legislators that are being constantly lobbied by the interests of greater corporate profit about all else. It’s us. As pharmaceutical companies discovered the advantages of direct-to-consumer advertising, so, too, have corporate interests discovered the advantages of direct-to-voter lobbying. And the corporations don’t even have to pay for it.

Even if we had 100% public financing of all elections, and eliminated all corporate lobbying, talk radio and Fox news would still be presenting distortions and factual errors that encourage people to vote against their own interests. Propagation of falsehood and distortion corrupts our democracy.

We've seen a rise since 1987 (when the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, allowing radio stations to air commentary without giving time for opposing views, paving the way for the rise of talk radio), and a further rise since 1996 (the year Fox news was founded) in messaging with a heavy corporate bias. I’m not saying the left is always thoroughly fact-checked and well-reasoned. The left has documentarians and comedians, while the right wing has talk radio and Fox TV. It’s kind of funny how that works. Liberal attempts to do talk radio and duplicate the angry snark of conservative talk show hosts have not done so well. And conservative attempts to make documentary films -- or tell a joke -- likewise generally flop. I’m not sure why that is. But whatever the medium, distortion and factual inaccuracy are not the exclusive province of the right. I’ve seen some fuzzy-reasoned and weakly evidenced documentaries on the left, even if I was sympathetic to the claim being advanced. And I've recognized unfair jokes from late-night comedians, even if I did laugh at them.

One thing about my experience of democracy in action at a Charlottesville church: there was no talk-radio-type bluster, and there were no jokes. There was no ridiculing – not the angry ridiculing of the incensed right, nor the giggling ridiculing of the aloof left. Maybe the left can’t do angry snark and the right can’t do funny snark, but we’re all doing a lot of snark these days. If democracy is, as John Dewey said, “a way of life of free and enriching communion” – if democracy is what I fully experienced on one glorious Sunday afternoon in Virginia almost 30 years ago – there’s no snark. There’s no ridiculing.

I admit that I have engaged in ridiculing. I’ve been snarky, and still am from time to time. Sometimes I go for the joke instead of the heart. I can tell you that in this next week I’m very probably going to spend some time streaming Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and/or Samantha Bee, and I will take what balm I can for my political pain in smirking along with the comics, in laughter as respite for tears. We take the solace that’s available when real democracy is not.

I’m concerned that corporations have disproportionate power, and that their pursuit of profits, which they are legally and even ethically required to aggressively maximize because they have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders, is harming this country and this planet. But demonizing corporations is not the way forward. Demonizing the other party is not the way forward.

I have glimpsed what democracy truly looks like. It looks like a couple hundred of the people with whom I share my life gathered 30 years ago to hear and to listen and to disagree, to care passionately about the issues, to care for each other more – and to outvote me.

Except for very small towns, city politics cannot look like that, nor can state or national politics. But if we personally experience the awesome community-forming power of face-to-face democracy, we may be energized to seek better democratic process on the larger scales. We will want to allow more voices rather than just wealthy ones. We will want to cultivate the democratic "habits of the heart" that engender better listening, better appreciation of our mutual interdependence, warmer hospitality to 'otherness', more life-giving holding of tensions, and more capacity for creating community (see 2013 post, "Five Habits of the Heart"). We will want to make it easier for representatives to represent all their constituents rather than lobbyists, to publicly fund campaigns, and to create districts without regard to partisan interest. The first step to doing these things is to want them. Wanting them comes from loving democracy. Loving democracy comes from having chances to experience it -- perhaps the most significant experience a congregation can provide.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "The Corruption of Our Democracy"
See also:
Part 1: I Love Democracy!
Part 2: Painful Divide

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