Corrupting Democracy One Dollar at a Time


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

Commodifying Democracy is a Costly Failure in America

7 Mar 2021 – Everyday I receive ten to twenty times more appeals for money to support this or that political campaign than I receive any kind of serious substantive statement of explanation or concern. And because this storm has become so deadening, the language of most appeals is nearly always hysterical, wildly exaggerating good or bad marginal developments designed to create a sense of urgency on the part of recipients. Not only can I not afford to respond to so many appeals, each insisting that the future of the republic is at stake, but the numbing effect is perhaps most disturbing, a kind of Gresham’s Law effect: bad ‘politics’ is driving out ‘good.’

Of course, these is an understandable issue at stake. The proto-fascist Republican, Trumpist side benefits from wealthy transactional donors who give vast sums with expectations of even vaster material gains, poses a challenge. This is not meant to deny that mainstream Democrats have their own cohort of special interest donors who are not shy about sharing their wish list, but somehow, the funding of Democratic agenda and its progressive candidates seems much more dependent on idealistic contributions from middle class citizens who want nothing other than more humane, competent, and equitable government.

In the background of this central message that ‘politics is money,’ which seems to overwhelm a more progressive views of citizenship as ‘politics is ideas,’ ‘citizenship is participation,’ ‘progressive goals dependent on movements from below.’ Of course, the media platforms are partly responsible as it has become so easy to solicit contributions from vast mailing lists, and it seems that to capture attention given the hordes of solicitors it seems a general belief that to be heard at all in such an atmosphere, it is necessary to shout alarmist slogans rather than to reason carefully or inform helpfully. There are many commonalities of approach in this barrage of appeals that account for a loss of credibility of the democratic process. Among the most annoying practices is the scripting of political formulae by coupling a few words of urgency with promises that whatever you donate will be matched by 300%, 400%, or even more. Also irritating is to receive several solicitations each day asking for money to support campaigns not only nationally and in my home state, but in distant states with candidates I know nothing about or in support of this or that law. True, there are rare occasions when such appeals make good political sense as was the case for the recent Senate races in Georgia, because without Democratic control of the Senate, Biden’s presidency would have been ruined on day one. But should I be expected to be intimately interested, much less monetarily involved in Congressional races in New Mexico or North Dakota between candidates I had never heard of before?

My point is that this kind of messaging is having a deadly, demobilizing effect on conventional politics. A fundamental impression is conveyed that the candidate who collects the most money will prevail, and that the substantive issues are nothing much more than partisan expressions of class interests. Maybe the two-party system is certainly to blame for the qualitative debasement of democracy, which across a broad spectrum of crucial concerns functions as if in its essence it is a one-party system. This seems most evident when it comes to approving the military budget, regulating Wall Street, supporting Israel, and more recently, exhibiting hostility toward China. Thus, policy convergence and competing for donations have become the stuff of democratic political life in 2021 for most of us, with much trumpeted(!) leadership faceoffs reduced to personality or popularity contests, while all this time proto-fascism wraps its tentacles ever tighter around the body politic.

Is there a solution? Perhaps, yet not without struggle. Many entrenched interests would have to be dislodged from their comfort zones. A beginning could be made by way of the federal financing of election campaigns along with imposing strict time limits on Internet appeals for funding candidates and promoting legislative reforms. In the present atmosphere there seems to be absent the kind of political will that would treat tweaking as breakthroughs. I believe if this pattern persists, it will produce the further commodification of democratic life and empty citizenship and civic responsibility of most of the meaning it clings to during the stresses exacted by the COVID challenges that had been superimposed on the demagogic presidency of Donald Trump during 2017-2021.

Can more robust democratic forms of political participation be imagined and established other than by way of donating money and often voting for ‘one-party’ candidates with two names? This atmosphere of monetary determinism is responsible for the macro-corruption of the citizenry, which in the end is even more deeply disabling than the numerous forms of micro-corruption associated with the (mis)shaping of policy by rewarding special interests who paid for ‘friendly’ treatment. From one angle, I realize that I criticizing what persons genuinely dedicated to enhancing democracy believe is the best they can do, given the current climate of submission to the ethos of the Internet. Worst of all, they may be right!


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).

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