The pursuit of power and wealth within the political industrial complex.
By: John Taylor
Karl Popper, the great 20th-century defender of liberal democracy, wrote, “All things living are in search of a better world.” Through the art of politics, human beings endeavor to improve the conditions of society. Within a just body politic, the government facilitates citizens’ pursuit of basic human goods. Some of these goods, according to the esteemed Oxford philosopher of jurisprudence John Finnis, are life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, and religion. These universal human goods are goods per se, that is, ends in themselves. Pursuit of them and other inherent goods leads one to the good life and natural happiness; the right pursuit by all members of a community leads to the blossoming of its common good. When governments fail to recognize their distinct mission and citizens misunderstand their natural ends, the society struggles and tends towards disarray. Analysing imperfect environments, they attempt to solve problems and improve predicaments. In the United States of America, these citizens primarily vote.
Theoretically, when the citizens of America cast their votes each year, they perform a civic duty. They consider their right to vote the principal act of the American democratic ideal: government by the people and for the people. Citizens elect their candidates according to individual political beliefs, hoping to improve the lives of their families, communities, and nation. Elected politicians reflect the will of “the people”, promote the common good, and thereby secure societal justice throughout the land. Thus democracy runs its course.
After every election, however, does the fundamental situation of the average American citizen truly improve? I believe that the marriage of big business and big government, particularly in the nationalized electoral process and promotion of rival ideologies, ruins all hope for a better world and more just society. In 2005, Stephen Colbert named this unholy matrimony the politico-industrial complex. Today’s political process severely debilitates the notion of true democracy and rational political discourse; these concepts are mere illusions. I hope to briefly assess the politico-industrial complex and introduce America’s collective consciousness to it.
What is the politico-industrial complex? It is the big business of politics. This business has grown, one election cycle after another, and shows no sign of stopping. In 2012, candidates, political parties, and special interest groups spent a record 7 billion dollars in the pursuit of political gain. These same folks spent 5.3 billion in 2008 and 4.2 billion in 2004. As Americans pump more and more money into the political world, the average American’s quality of life fails to increase. Follow the money and you will find the capitalists whose entire careers rests upon the increased expansion of their political businesses. While the entire politico-industrial complex is rife with corruption, this piece concerns the art of winning elections amid exploitation by rival political ideologies. The business increasingly becomes the method of buying the right votes, extorting, and propagandizing the typical American voter. The politically-minded American citizen thus wastes both his money and his vote. Meanwhile, the invisible men, the behind the scene politicos, rake in millions. It is no wonder that the District of Columbia remains immune to economic recession.
Power and wealth go hand in hand, and often tend toward corruption. We know this through from history and even pop culture, from the fall of the Roman Empire to Netflix’ House of Cards. Power and wealth exist as means to inherent human goods, but not as ends per se. When they are treated as such, the rapid, extortionary proliferation of money into the political world, any just pursuit of the common good falters and fails. Candidates are often chosen on the basis of their potential for success according to the certain demographic of a district, state, or nation. Through political polling methods, politicians structure the content of their public platforms in order to best appear and appeal to the general electorate. They alter their public persona according to the public’s prevailing perceptions. Thus, political candidates and parties work to appeal to the largest voting block and in the process spend outrageous sums of money. They pursue power and wealth, which are only “goods” insofar as they can lead to basic and universal human goods. But power and wealth reign supreme within the greater political system. Alasdair MacIntyre, the great contemporary Thomist philosopher, explains in his short essay “The Only Vote Worth Casting In November”:
Neither party is wholeheartedly committed to the cause of which it is the ostensible defender. Republicans happily endorse pro-choice candidates, when it is to their advantage to do so. Democrats draw back from the demands of economic justice with alacrity, when it is to their advantage to do so. And in both cases rhetorical exaggeration disguises what is lacking in political commitment.
The political contest becomes a game to receive the most votes. The winner must essentially buy votes, spending insane amounts of money in the process. In order to receive this kind of hard cash, candidates stress various political positions in order to target certain demographics. These subcultures contain the politically-minded citizens and businesses who, desiring personal or societal betterment, donate to candidates, parties, political action committees, etc. Behind each of these entities certain individuals thrive, receiving large percentages of each donation and often amassing incredible fortunes. Enterprising politicos control donations, mailings, television and internet advertisements, polling systems, and all the means necessary to work the precise calculus of getting votes and wining elections.
The politico-industrial complex likewise capitalizes upon the rival factions present within modern American political discourse. Heated debate between two dogmatic ideologies props up multi-million dollar industries which exploit the political beliefs of the individual person, eventually controlling their votes and extorting cash from them. Media companies and lobbying groups generate substantial wealth catering to one ideological faction or another. More and more people realize each year the great wealth to be made in political life. Thus political discourse becomes a battle which pits two incommensurable moral disagreements against each other and deepens the country’s societal divides. All the while, politically charged lobbies and media organization gain capital to no end and without reason to cease.
Is there any escape from this? Should American citizens accept the their plight, rationalizing somehow support for “a lesser of two evils”? If politics is the art of prudence, then ought the well-meaning citizen utilize 21st-century political methods for the common good? These are important questions to ask, and it’s just as important to clear away corruption and eliminate our country’s toxic political discourse. We must clear the drive for wealth from our political institutions, or at least alter the conditions to minimize the drive for money therein. We must begin to ask the right political questions. How can we fundamentally establish true social justice and promote the common good? How do we regard the dignity of the whole individual and promote just economic redistributions? How do we promote the good life of the human being from its outset until death within our post-industrial, capitalist market? These important questions aren’t asked, and the system’s political ballyhoo and money laundering thrives.
Thus the system remains the same. The informed individual must fight the system by disassociating himself from it. As MacIntyre writes:
In this situation a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.
Working to rectify the errors of our current political system, I find myself “in search of a better world”.
John Taylor is a senior studying history and philosophy.