I have observed America’s political system for 25 years now waiting for some progressive legislation to help deal with our many social, economic, and environmental problems. The last real liberal program was enacted in the 1960s with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. A few times since then watered-down laws have been passed, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (of 1990!) or Obamacare; and sometimes a bit piece of reform manages to squeeze through after too long a delay, such as the revocation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But on the whole, week after week, month after month, and year after year, nothing substantive happens to solve our main of inequality, alienation, and environmental destruction.
American laws are still technically passed by Congress, but legislation- and policy-making is in reality done during the lobby process, in which a horde of interest groups negotiate, maneuver, and horse-trade in order to make laws that benefit little factions rather than the good of the whole, or the good of common people. These interest groups are legion, and while a few groups sometimes represent interests of some general benefit (such as, at times, the American Association of Retired Persons), the lobby process is dominated by corporate, military/security, and culturally regressive interest groups,because they are the ones who have the most money to effectively promote their interests.
The end result is that any proposal must pass through a series of interest-group “filters” in order to be made into a law or policy. Indeed, these filters often define and delimit political discourse itself. These filters are defined by the prominent lobbies and cliques in Washington with vested interests, who have the power to block, bog down, capture, or dilute legislation. They thus have, in effect if not formally, a veto over proposed laws, albeit early in the policy-making process before legislation even reaches the floors of Congress for a vote. Legislation also must pass muster of the centrist Washington establishment which imposes its own filters.
These filters include, but are not limited to:
- Oil/Hydrocarbon energy -- the research funds and massive seed capital alternative energy needs to address climate change is blocked by the oil extraction industry and its corollaries, including the auto industry.
- Militarism -- the military-industrial complex has so much power that military solutions to problems become the preferable, and even default, choice.
- Security/Intelligence -- After 9/11, considerations of privacy and human rights took a back seat to those of intelligence collection and security, such that in some corners of the government these concerns are scoffed at and seen as left-wing fringe, akin to drug legalization or environmentalism. Which says a lot.
- Centrism, "bipartisanship," anti-populism -- because the political pundit class of the Washington establishment lacks real expertise on matters of substance, it has but one lens by which it evaluates policy: is it somewhere in the middle? Is it based on middling compromise, no matter how asymmetrical the bargaining positions of the two sides, and no matter what policy is called for by facts, experience, and good judgment?
- Preference for privatization of public goods -- every damn thing has to be done by some supposed “entrepreneur” or another, with the dogma that the private sector always delivers services better than government taken as a given, whether it’s true or not, or whether there are other considerations at play. This leads to systematic venality and profiteering, as when war-fighting functions or the delivery of critical public good like healthcare or electronic voting are privatized.
- Consumerism -- Before the first Gulf War in the oil-rich Middle East, George Bush Sr. said that “The American lifestyle is not up for negotiation,” and after 9/11 his son called upon American citizens, in response to the attack, to start shopping again as soon as possible to get the economy moving. Green, communitarian, and other non-consumerist philosophies are filtered right out of political discourse by the need to keep the consumption machine chugging along.
There are many other such filters, including the American work ethic with its atomized, rugged individualism and Social Darwinism; American exceptionalism which must declare the USA to be the best country in the world in though it lags behind in so many areas, and the anti-intellectualism/anti-science prejudice that has so plagued American political culture since the founding Puritan days.
America’s political filters are sometimes conceptual schemata set down by ideological powers, sometimes criteria set down by powerful vested economic interests, and sometimes both. Policy and discourse must pass through the filters to be heard. The filters prevent rational, systemic, deliberative policy-making in line with democratic majority preferences by making a precondition of passage the approval of all the relevant interest groups.
The result? When circumstances call for a needed reform, as today’s circumstances do, what usually happens is that symbolic measures are proposed or even passed that rhetorically address the issue, or appear to address it, but in fact do nothing to actually address it.
Finally, it is critical to understand that the people do not vote for any of this. Whatever policy platform the electorate thinks it is voting for or against is irrelevant to the effective veto power of the groups that can impose these filters: “majority rule,” which is supposed to define what democracy is, is effectively negated by the existence of the filters.