Corporate Interests v Public Interests

>> Sunday, November 2, 2008

In my posting The Coming Blue Dog Wars i discussed the coming struggle in the democratic party to prevent representatives elected to serve the people from assuming the role vacated by the gop members they replaced as the tools of business and corporate interests. I highlighted Accountability Now as a primary tool of keeping these people honest by threatening their beloved job security. The primary focus of congresspersons is to get reelected and if they know someone will be running against them highlighting their bad habits it provides a powerful incentive to stick tight to the wishes of the people. In response to a comment in that post i want to look at a different tool on the same issue fighting corporate interests of congresspersons.

The Premise from Aura

please further develop your thoughts concerning the tension between local accountability and the pressures on representatives to respond to corporate (or other large interest group?) pressure. I challenge you to move beyond a more simplistic stereotype focused just on corporate lobbying interests and to consider the effects of any large (non-local) interest block. And please also consider what structural, mechanistic processes can be put in place to reinforce local engagement, accountability and oversight of elected representatives. I think that the challenge and opportunity is to build tools, process and mechanism that will create a sustainable local counterweight to K street forces. And my intuition is that creative use of the web will be key to development of this type of a counterweight.

Really you could write a book on this. But here it goes...

The legitimate tensions that are present in the corporate versus constituent services arise because corporations are in fact a constituency group. We think of business as not being a voter so they dont deserve representation but really they play a part in the way america works. they are the employers and management and they have interests just as the average voter does. The tension is that often the immediate interests of business and the worker are very much in conflict. A single voter or group of workers are going to work for better wages, health care and general benefits. Corporations and general businesses are going to work to make money however whenever and wherever they can. their interest is in making money in a rather amoral way. To effect this they lobby, donate to, and write legislation for, congresspersons.

The issue is that individually and pooled together as industries they have a lot of money and a lot or resources that they can dedicate simply to working the government and the people who make it up. They may apply pressure in the form of donating to competition or reward in donations. They have an especially valuable resource in time as most people have to work for a living, which means that they simply do not have time to inspect the daily votes and committee speeches made by their representatives. This leaves the impression that citizens are not paying attention and are unengaged. The interest groups are always there always getting their side heard.

The problem occurs when the congress people are unable to determine the proper balance between making sure that individual voter interests are protected and when some portions of voters interests are outweighed by bigger national level concerns. Voter interests should be the dominant concern only rarely coming in second. For instance on FISA the interest for business was in getting retroactive immunity. This was directly opposed to the interests of voters and citizens. Legislators should not have passed the retroactive immunity.

For any mechanism designed to fight the interests of big interest groups there are several objectives. One, counterbalancing money. Two, making sure that legislators know the folks back home are paying attention and have an interest in every issue. Three, provide competition to those who ignore the prior the money and push back from the people back home.

I imagine that the best way to accomplish this is with one comprehensive mechanism/institution. We want to pool as many people as possible so that the resources are used most effectively. The interest groups we are fighting against can bring a massive amount of resources to bear on their select issue but the rest of us need to pick and choose our battles. Pooling resources in select races against the worst offenders will be the best use of the resources. The more we have to spend the more congresspersons we could potentially target in any given cycle.

The first thing required is simply information. In order to fight against interest groups information about what is actually going on is critical. The possible language of the legislation, the people pushing it and their histories. Luckily this is becoming easier and easier to put together. This campaign has demonstrated repeatedly the power of the internet to put together the back story and required information needed in lightning fast time. This is a major change over even the recent past made clear by Ezra Klein's reflective post,

Whenever I talk to friends or family back home, I inevitably get the "what are you hearing" question. The basic idea is that living in Washington, DC, I hear all sorts of fascinating or genuinely revealing tidbits that, for unexplained reasons, I keep to myself. It's always baffled me: If I was hearing something, I'd tell you abut it, because I would like people to read my blog and link to my stuff and generally make me a powerful and influential and well-liked and economically affluent individual. But paging through the reams of polls on clarifies the question a bit: 10 years ago, most folks didn't have access to reams of polls on But if you lived in Washington, you really did hear about them. Your office had a subscription to The National Journal or you knew someone on a campaign. This was why it was useful to have TV shows where pundits and reporters distilled DC wisdom: They were hearing stuff, and accessing data sources, that the broader public didn't have.

But now, everyone who asks me that questions reads the same polls. They know Nate Silver or watch MSNBC or keep an eye on The tools of the pundit trade have been sharply democratized. The "things we're hearing" are now published instantly on web sites where you can read those things yourself. As such, the pundit and the reporter actually have a lot less to say. We can tell you what we're thinking, but you already know what we're hearing. Information is cheap. My sense is this is part of why punditry has become so disreputable and seems increasingly useless. The added value of having access to protected knowledge is mostly gone.

And yes, this would suggest that a large part of my job is obsolete. On the other hand, it turns out you all have an insatiable appetite for hearing what people are saying about what they're hearing, and so rather than the industry shrinking as it proved to have less to offer, it has actually expanded vastly. As it's become easier for people to be political junkies (you can do it at your desk), the market for political chatter has expanded.

What we need to know is out there. This means the key is, as always, is organization. gathering all of this information, providing context and disseminating it will be the way to fight against big money interest groups. The way to go about doing it would be to follow the obama campaign model. Obama is possibly the best organizer ever if we judge based on his success. The tools he built to run the campaign, the email lists, the social networking tools. The obama campaign was able to take information and turn it around to virtually everyone who cared to have it in a matter of hours. Like today as Steve Benen notes,

Cheney probably thought, "I'll give a short speech endorsing McCain in Laramie, Wyoming. Who'll know?"

If the Obama campaign has anything to do with it, pretty soon, everyone will know.

That's the goal. Most legislators figure that the ins and outs of their jobs will never see the light of day much less be exposed to their constituents. As the obama campaign demonstrated the internet is a powerful tool in disseminating information. Obama also had the benefit of the tv media though and that is something hard to duplicate. However, there is a possible way to deal with this. I call it the bachmann model.

Every one in the country knows that Michele Bachmann went on hardball and said something really really stupid. Now in the past that may well have been it, especially as the local papers refused to cover that situation. What happened though is that the blogs and the net picked it up. From there is spread back to tv and other media outlets. The story took on a whole new dimension when the fund raising numbers for her opponent took off. That gathered more media attention and brought attention to the other absurd and crazy things she does. She has now been targeted and has a serious challenge on her hands.

Now as i have said it is impossible right now to generate the resources to target every bad congressperson. However picking out the bachmanns and making an example out of them will have a major impact. If the net roots is able to generate a media blitz on important legislative issues, getting our narrative and framing into the media and also around the media is key. So a net based tool that can disseminate the information and get it into the tm with the proper framing coupled with the ability to field challengers to congress people and money to opponents is the way to go in challenging money interests. All of this though has to be done with relentless discipline.

The biggest challenge to this is to be taken seriously as a "main stream" institution. Moveon has a large email list but they have been marginalized and branded as a "far left" org. They have also failed to demonstrate on their own the ability to field a challengers that takes out or seriously weakens incumbents. They lack a credibility in their threat that is essential in altering behavior. The congresspeople felt comfortable enough in crossing them to condemn them on the floor. That demonstrates that they just dont have the fear required. The credibility will depend on choosing the right targets. Kos has so far demonstrated pretty good eye in picking out who to go after. Donna Edwards and Bill Foster being a couple of examples.

As Obama demonstrated the key in organizing is getting to the local level. Any comprehensive tool to counter the special interest groups will rely not on the top down but local level bottom up work. Letting the voters in a district know what is going on and getting them involved on a consistent basis. Seriously combating the business interests will require the ability to mobilize from a local level the constituents with emails, letters, phone calls. The difference between what is happening now and the future is that the congress people will realize that it is one org doing the mobilizing on a number of issues. The collective resources and targeting make it easy for those who serve corporations to the exclusion of the people to recognize the danger they are in of triggering a primary challenge. Congress people will have to take this danger seriously and due to proper signaling they will. Drawing the attention of this group might be enough to modify behavior. Take this instance for example,
Here's a perfect everyday example of just how much the pendulum of power is shifting in this country. Brad Blakeman, one of those GOP strategists you see on teevee, argues that an Obama victory would effectively result in a Democratic dictatorship.

Blakeman, whose counterpart was Ari Melber of The Nation, quickly realized he'd just stepped in it, and begged for mercy:

I'm kidding you Ari, take it easy. Don't blog it after we're done, get your people all in a bean about it.

To understand why Blakeman was begging for mercy, you need to know that the last time he and Melber squared off, Melber so thoroughly destroyed him that the YouTube clip of their encounter received over 150,000 views and subjected Blakeman to widespread mocking throughout the blogosphere.

So what we are seeing in this clip below is a Republican who realizes that conservatives no longer have exclusive dominance over the contours of our public discourse. There's a new seat at the table -- and we're the ones sitting in it.

To truly nullify the big money interest groups that oppose the interests of the regular voter requires a complex, large scale, disciplined operation with a large base that reaches across the country. If we could take the obama tools and lessons learned then use them as a base to challenge the specialized interests across the board. This of course is probably too ambitious. we can however, operate on a smaller scale. If we manage to reproduce consistently under one banner operations like the one that raised money for Elwyn tinklenberg and the one that has reduced the impact of Ron Fournier and the one that took out donna edwards then we have a good chance of improving the representation each of us gets in congress. The voters should be the number one concern for those serving in congress and too often they arent.


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