The FEC, ‘the system,’ and the cave

Amidst alleged intractable difficulties, FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel has been hosting vanity panels and blitzing reverent media with woebegone tales of Commission “paralysis,” “dysfunction,” and “public betrayal.” Despite her full schedule, however, her quest’s philosophical underpinnings remain in tatters. 

Ravel hosted the controversial Women in Politics

forum last week. The confab produced questionable substance even putting aside obvious concerns over authority for taxpayer-funded forays into chromosome politics. 


By the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s count, the U.S. ranks 73rd in female legislators. The top five, however, are hardly preferred realms of emulation: 1. Rwanda, 2. Bolivia, 3. Cuba, 4. Seychelles, and 5. Switzerland.


Nevertheless, what’s to be done about America’s political XX crisis? One panelist suggested dismantling our economic system. ‘No Capitalism, No Cry,’ as the song goes.


Harvard professor Pippa Norris had an equally drastic proposal: “I know in America . . . it’s a radical revolutionary – I won’t say left-wing agenda [editor’s note: go ahead Pippa you can say it] – but nevertheless brand new idea . . . If you’re in Britain and you’re running as a candidate of any party, you can’t really spend that much money – $15,000 to $20,000 maximum . . . You can’t buy ads, so that gets rid of that. You shove a pamphlet through people’s doors, that’s it, and then you meet people.”


Eureka! Abolish the First Amendment and gender parity ensues! Except the percentage difference in U.S. and U.K. female legislators barely registers: lower house 3.4%; upper chamber 4.1%. Eradicating our free speech tradition seems a high price for a miniscule rise in female participation. One might also inquire if the Brits like their constrained system. They don’t. Nine out of ten people say the UK government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interests. A 2006 NGO report stated, “Trust in politics and politicians is low and the UK political establishment is perceived by the public to be the most corrupt of any UK institution.” Of course as Larry Lessig has proven time and again, Harvard’s imprimatur inspires a certain devil-may-care nonchalance about pedestrian issues of academic rigor.


Although unfortunately absent from the forum, Lessig and Ravel do share a populist philosophical view of campaign finance. As articulated by Brookings Institute’s Jonathan Rauch:


The populist school equates legitimacy with direct participation by ordinary individuals and corruption with intermediation or influence on the part of organizations or interests, especially large or wealthy ones. For the populist reformer, the solution to almost any political problem involves more democracy, more participation . . . For the populist . . . private money . . . is corrupting—unless it comes from small donors, in which case it counts as participation (even if the government has to purchase said participation with a tax credit and a six-fold match) . . . . For the populist, transparency is virtuous in and of itself . . .


Ravel concurs: “Somehow we have to get to a system that encourages people to participate not just by voting but by giving money so that the policy needs of most people will be listened to as much as those of wealthy donors . . . The system is bad for everyone . . .”


There are several shortcomings with ‘the system’ approach to campaign finance. First it’s empirically deficient. Second it incorrectly assumes popular political involvement is artificially less than some more perfect baseline. Third, it mistakes ordinary transactional politics with corruption. And fourth it’s doctrinally unworkable; as Rauch explains, “The system is corrupt’ [is] a good statement of the ideology which has made modern progressivism an inherently unstable and uncontainable doctrine.”


As a philosophy major, Chairwoman Ravel is surely familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave. In it, Socrates explains the existence objective truth beyond what some choose or are even capable of understanding. One who has left the cave and experienced sunlight may find themselves ridiculed when returning to explain truth to the cave’s permanent dwellers.


Lessig and Ravel cast themselves as enlightened sunbathers nobly teaching obdurate cave dwellers. And yet, their real problem is misconstruing the populace. It’s not that those who look askance at hipster adverts, keep electing the wrong gender, and spend their time away from theoretical arguments need teaching, they just aren’t buy ‘the system’ remedy. The internet provided the light; no one is left in the cave. 


By Paul Jossey