One day, while I was away getting money out of an ATM, a friend of mine decided it would be a good idea to stop and play three card monte with some guys on the street. Needless to say, you can probably guess how that story ended. $20 lighter and looking bewildered, he looked at me as I walked up and simply said: “That sucked…” It did suck, but he was also the sucker. Anyone who knew what was going on knew that he was about to get hustled. Three card monte is just the street version of sucker’s bets though. Hustling is rampant all over the place in the US. That’s how a lot of general contractors get over. Used car salesmen too. And if you think that certain bankers aren’t hustling, I have a portfolio of asset-backed securities I’d like to sell you. Cavaet emptor is such a dog-eat-dog concept, but it’s become increasingly accepted.
Now, a new paper by six political scientists called A Theory of Parties attempts to demonstrate that this desire and ability to exploit information disadvantages of others has been extended to politics. As summarized by Jay Rosen over at PressThink:
In the United States, at least, parties are not politicians of a similar mind banding together to win elections, but “coalitions of narrow interests in pursuit of policy demands” that aren’t necessarily in the interest of the broader public. They “only strive to please voters when necessary to win elections.” But this constraint often doesn’t amount to much “due to voters’ lack of information about politics.” The goal, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, is to “cede as little [influence] to voters as possible.” The need to win elections occasionally requires “genuine responsiveness,” but parties mainly push their own agendas and try to get voters to acquiesce.
There’s so much wrong here. The idea that small groups of politicians and special interests are attempting to figure out ways to get around the will of the people by keeping them in the dark, keeping them ignorant and exploiting what they call electoral blind spots is not how democracy should work. But in fact it is. And it’s not just a space that exists in a vacuum. It’s one that politicians and special interests create through misleading information, complex legislation, behind the scenes lobbying and bizarre procedural:
…the blind spot is where voters get screwed because they don’t know what’s going on. Far from being a problem for the two major parties, it’s actually their goal to find these spots and enlarge them. The blind spot is the point at which voters stop paying attention because the costs of figuring out what’s really going on are too high. When the parties discern where that point is, it’s open season for the interest groups who know how the system works
Given all of this, is it any wonder that people’s confidence in Congress is at an all time low and that people are seeking alternative ways outside of the electoral process to achieve their goals (hello OWS). If your wishes are not heeded by those you vote for, what’s the alternative. What’s the point of the elected representatives at all if they don’t represent you or your views?
Some will try to maintain that this is a GOP phenomenon only, but, while the right side of the aisle may have mastered the ability to exploit such blind spots, the left is rapidly catching up. The authors of the study make that point very clearly. This is also very clearly outlined in the book “Winner Take All Politics” by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (a tremendously informative and important read in my opinion).
So, what to do? Well, the most obvious solution is to become better informed about what is happening in Washington and your local City Hall. But, that’s not always easy, especially with a media that doesn’t do it’s job. Especially the mainstream media. Alternative media sources help fill out the picture. Another option is to simplify the legislative process and make electoral representatives actually representative. Or, a final option is to modify or scrap the representative process in order to introduce direct democratic methods.
But regardless, if we continue to play three card monte….well you know how that story ends.