Christopher Lasch, for all his antediluvian tendencies, was right when he wrote, “The difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth itself needs to be limited. When money talks, everybody is condemned to listen.”
This was hardly a novel suggestion on Lasch’s part—Louis Brandeis remarked a century ago that for democracies, the choice was between maintaining its existence and allowing great concentrations of wealth to fester—but it’s nearly absent from center-left discourse. Liberals justifiably assail the 1 percent for enriching itself through the political process, then typically point to Citizens United and a broken campaign finance system as the culprits. Overturn Citizens United, legislatively limit the “power of big money,” and, if they’re feeling really ambitious, constitutionally “establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”
This is all well-intentioned, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic. But I think this kind of approach gets it backwards. Just as reconstructed liberals have come to favor after-tax, at-the-margins redistribution, so too are their money-in-politics proposals informed by ex post facto logic. In both cases, it’s too late. Money adapts, it seeps through the cracks. And when you try to limit its political influence, you bump into legitimate First Amendment concerns. Above all, liberals’ preferred palliatives would leave the root problem—prodigious disparities in wealth and power—virtually untouched.
Democracies which are also class societies are in a perpetual balancing act: Class inequalities replicate themselves in the political system, imperiling fundamental democratic principles. Wealthy donors have an outsized influence on political campaigns, of course, but they also underwrite policy organizations, advocacy groups, and think tanks that shape public policy. Outside the conventional political process, wealthy individuals and large corporations make enormous decisions that impact thousands, if not millions of lives—plant closings, investment decisions, etc.—that make a mockery of self-determination. The “lesser” is subject to the caprice and the preferences of the “better.” When most American workers enter the workplace, they’re denied not only negative liberty, but positive liberty, stripped of free speech and due process protections. Nevermind the proletarian revolution—the bourgeois revolution hasn’t even been consummated!
Class power can be reduced through equality-enhancing policies and the existence of strong popular organizations such as unions, but it’s always lurking around the corner, ready to vitiate the democratic promise of collective self-governance between equals. In the United States, equality-augmenting policies are few and far between. Labor unions, on the whole, have become a conjoined arm of the Democratic Party, docile, easily placated, inert. They’re still arguably the largest progressive force in American politics, but they lack the rank-and-file membership and chutzpah to really counterbalance the 1 percent. So we’re stuck in a class society with little to weaken the tie between political and economic inequality.
One antidote to this is simple: Redistribute wealth, thus constraining its influence. No, not some tepid, Buffet Rule-style corrective. The status quo calls for massive shifts from the fabulously wealthy to everyone else (especially the poor). By itself, this would inaugurate a society less riven by class, dispersing power from the few to the many. The solution must go beyond that, however. Repeal Taft-Hartley and overhaul labor law to make it more amenable to unionization and the establishment of workplace democracy. À la the War on Poverty’s Community Action Programs, fund community organizations that foster participation and nurture grassroots democracy. Tom Wolfe satirized these programs to great effect in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” but they were actually quite successful. They were axed because they effectively challenged existing power structures, not because of their inadequacies. In sum, diffuse power, or counterbalance it.
If this radical agenda were to be seriously debated, the ululations of the elite would be positively ear-splitting, a capital strike a distinct possibility. But if we wish to even approximate the political equality on which our system is avowedly based, that stuff’s pretty unavoidable, isn’t it?