I once asked a politician about accusations of disproportionate campaign cash from members of one industry.
“Campaign contributions don’t buy votes,” he assured me. “All they buy is access.”
He said this without irony. Access, of course, has been a key point in the push for lobbying reform. Intuitively, government’s output correlates to input. Lawmakers are influenced by who has their ear.
That energy-industry reps and contributors not only got access to the Bush administration, but helped write energy legislation at its inception, while environmental groups couldn’t even get meetings, made that issue a poster child for how legislation is skewed by and for the connected. Several mechanisms, however, currently impede citizen access to those we elect or trust to govern. Among these are the political “bubble,” the growing cadre of “filters,” and our own “prism” through which we view politics.
The Bubble is what politicians themselves, in more self-mocking moments, call their world. A cousin of “inside the Beltway” and the academic “ivory tower,” it recognizes that 24/7 politics places those who legislate, lobby, and campaign in a world most don’t inhabit. Most voters can’t name all their own legislators. Bubble denizens, however, like baseball nuts who can discuss the minor-league batting average of some Cubs backup catcher from the ‘70s, can not only rattle off their own reps, but every elected official in a 20-mile radius, plus those officials’ past and future opponents, support groups and maybe even favorite foods.
Recently, in such a talk with a veteran of both campaigns and government, I stopped and said, “Most people wouldn’t be having this conversation, would they?”
“No,” he said. “We’re freaks.”
Every field has insider jargon and knowledge. But government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. If a cadre who can move the levers operates while the vast majority doesn’t even know those levers exist, the ideal blurs toward illusion.
The Bubble isn’t new. As a recent candidate, however, I was shocked to find how much it’s morphed of late from thin, pop-able, soap, to a hard sphere of Plexiglass or something more opaque. Worse, it doesn’t wait until after election to form, but begins to envelope politicians during the campaign itself.
The demands and dynamics of scrambling for votes jets would-be officeholders into a whirl apart, meeting, calling and mingling mainly with others in the same separate reality.
Hardening the Bubble are “filters.” Simple population growth alone means far more constituents per legislator than in the past. Add in the crush of thousands of bills introduced, as government now has so many more roles. Demands on political time are enormous. This magnifies the importance of making, or getting on, government’s schedule.
Huge power rests in the hands of gatekeepers who tell most of the world, “Nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not nohow!” Some, of course, do see the wizard. And the union or bank president whose meeting is taken, the contributor hosting the coffee, and the interest group representative also become filters who mediate between constituencies and government.
The temptations to leverage Filter status are large, and some do. The Blagojevich trial has shed light on ex-aides who became, instantly, wealthy lobbyists, simply because their phone call would be taken. Filtering, even for non-monetary reward, aggravates the trend toward, as Daniel Biss, candidate for State Representative, has put it, a government that is transactional where it should be visionary.
Sadly, we add to this disconnect by a prism of cynicism. It’s easier to dismiss than to engage, and so we yield to cartooning. Everything electeds or candidates do becomes viewed through a dismissive, dehumanizing lens: “Oh, she’s only doing it for (fill in the blank: votes, money, publicity).”
This Prism hardens the Bubble from the outside. As voters disengage and dismiss, politicians can get jaded and cease to relate. At a recent event I noted, amongst approximately 100 citizens, the five elected officials in the room – all talking to each other.
It needn’t be so. Voters can help pierce the Bubble by engaging: attending debates and hearings, and joining groups that do real issue work, but also by, when voting, scrutinizing real-world, non-Bubble experience.
Politicians who have that background, and who continue to “get out more,” from knocking on doors to ward meetings, make a good start. But we also we need real reform to reduce the role of Filters and the toxic Prism.
Ultimately, fundraising drives much of politics’ transactionality. Lobbying reforms such as the online posting of meetings that MoveOn.org and others are urging would at minimum make the Bubble more transparent, but would likely make officials spend more time with those normally kept waiting outside the door.
Reducing disconnect between government and the governed isn’t just one more issue. It’s key to reclaiming democracy.