For all the bluster about “money in politics”, democracy suffers from much more fundamental perversities. Chief among them, it seems to me, is the fact that democratic governments – even those without a propaganda arm – are actively involved in forming the interests they are supposed to reflect. As Joseph Schumpeter put it, “The will of the people is the product and not the motive power of the political process.”
In the first place, political opinions are widely inchoate; formless and void. The framing effect can powerfully alter a person’s political expression, and a marketing organization with a product as enticing as the reins of political power (i.e. a campaign organization) can muster dramatic political paradigm shifts. Even when not campaigning, demagoguery is a consumption good for the type of people the political process selects for. You win fame and power by the constant exercise of marketing muscle. And because of the mythos of democratic government as public interest, people are much more credulous as voters than as consumers.
In addition, there is the organic creation of permanent interest groups by ill-advised policies. A political benefit is rarely relinquished without a fight, and except in cases of egregious harm, most citizens in a democracy can’t muster enough care to oppose someone else’s privilege – so long as he gets to keep his own. There is a reason social security is called the “third rail of american politics”: no matter how obviously broken the system, it’s beneficiaries will suffer no change to the status quo. A similar story could be told about farm subsidies, or pension benefits, and in fact nearly any benefit bestowed by the hand of the state: in a democracy, once you start giving something away, no matter how severe the resulting crisis, it’s nearly impossible to stop.
This is not merely a situation with no equilibrium. There is in fact a feedback loop, but a positive one, that feeds back on itself and amplifies the initial impulse. This is a profoundly anti-equilibrating situation. Demagoguery and marketing tickle the ears of an inevitably ill-informed voting public to subvert any mechanism that might put a halt to this perverse dynamic. How competent you are, O voter, and how much you deserve!
Money in politics is a symptom, not only of a state with enough power to make lobbying worth it, but of a political constitution where the government is supposed to reflect a will over which it itself exercises a large influence. If the people’s political preferences are sufficiently plastic, we witness the rise of a political class of marketers, subsisting on donations in exchange for political favors to fund the manufacture of those preferences. This indeterminacy of the will of the people gives the marketing class substantial leeway within which to enact policies as they see fit.
Interest groups are well-recognized as the way that bad policies perpetuate themselves in a democracy. One ends up not with a democracy, but an erithocracy1 – rule by interest group. Even so, this is a constraint on the political class, who might at times have other goals. The marketing state, however, is what sets a democracy on this course, dooming it from the very beginning.
This is, of course, not to blame those masses, any more than one can blame “greed” for financial crises. Any political system must take the existence of politically unsophisticated masses for granted, just as any financial system must take greed for granted. And even if we could devise a system to produce high-minded and politically engaged citizens, it is the sacred privilege of the free individual to ignore the political so much as possible. Democracy makes it lucrative to prey on these masses; the blame must therefore be placed there.
To say that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty in a democracy is to admit that democracy is hopelessly fragile as a political system. Perhaps it is true that no system can survive a people holding corrupt ideas and enamored of corrupt policies. Indeed, it has been the hope of the liberal throughout the modern era that ideas are exogenous; that the ideological battle can be won, and institutions must cave to ideology in the end. But if it is the dynamics of democracy itself that gives birth to this ideological corruption endogenously in the politically unsophisticated masses, surely there are systems that can survive the mere existence of these masses?
Perhaps, in order to break that ideological feedback loop, liberalism need only explode the romance of the voting rube.