For years now we’ve heard about corruption in politics, the influence of lobbyists, and the incompetence of politicians; but the Citizen's United decision and the election year cycle seem to have focused this dialogue more tightly. I am reading and hearing a single idea repeated over and over; it is essentially a concession that politicians must now do the bidding of their corporate sponsors or risk losing the funds necessary to win their respective elections.
Over the course of the Obama presidency this idea has evolved into a rationale for the passage of policy that the majority of people in the country do not want. Under threat of negative advertising and withholding of campaign contributions, politicians cast themselves as hapless victims of a system they have no control over. This relieves them of responsibility for the bad decisions they are forced to make. It is particularly disturbing to hear supporters of these candidates reduce their own critique to repetition of a variation on the single phrase, “What would you have them do? Their hands are tied.”
Americans* pride ourselves on our great empathy for others who are powerless to change their own circumstance. When our politicians present themselves as powerless to change the direction the country is headed, it is intended to resonate with our feelings of powerlessness in our own lives. Whether they feel your pain or they “know that times are tough,” they are recognizing your feeling of powerlessness and then relying on your empathy to validate their own appearance of powerlessness. If this is not an intentional fabrication, it is certainly a convenient one.
It occurs to me that by omission or by design, this powerlessness argument seems to miss two important points.
First, a growing number of our political officials are not simply under the influence of moneyed interests, but are in fact directly connected to the corporations that their policy decisions will affect; as former CEO's, major share holders, etc. Put simply, this is corporate leadership buying into office and then legislating for their own profit. I saw this in spades during Bush & Company's reign. Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton from 1995-2000, when he became Vice President. Halliburton received numerous no-bid contracts in connection with the Iraq War. The argument could have been made that the war was one for profit, but the media was seemingly too distracted by fictitious Weapons of Mass Destruction to investigate or even comment on this. Though Americans would support their President in defending the country, and even support defense contractors for a job well done, they might have had a different perspective if informed that those that stood to profit from the war were the same people that made the decision to go to war. Wholesale looting of the United States Treasury for private profit doesn't poll very well with voters.
Second, why don’t we have higher expectations of our political officials? On the campaign trail it is all “fight fight fight,” but why don't we expect them to act courageously on our behalf once they are in office? When they constantly reiterate the obstacles they face, no one asks them flat out what plans they are developing or what options they have for overcoming these obstacles. Isn't this their job after all? Why do we elect them/continue to elect them if they seem incapable of solving (or is it unwilling to solve) the problems we face? If you go to a demonstration and the society doesn't change the next day, you don’t just go home and give up. You have to be creative and come up with other ways of moving forward. If the authorities break up your protest, you can’t start using that as an excuse not to protest. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. In Wisconsin the opposition senators left the state to keep the senate from achieving the necessary quorum to vote. They stood with their constituents and took action rather than spending time making excuses. What options do our political officials have available to them to solve the problems we face? Ask them if you don't know, tell them if you do, and above all talk to each other and come up with your own solutions.
*I am using this term here to refer to those living in the USA, not to reference all of our sisters and brothers in the Americas.