Is Government Relevant?

At a time when the federal government is a main focus of media attention, when CNN broadcasts the workings of Congressional committees, and when The Congressional Quarterly is available over the Internet, does it make sense to ask whether the Federal government is less relevant than ever to our lives?

It would appear at first glance that the government is becoming a subject of greater interest to Americans. We have seen the enactment of term limits in many states, the broad-based popular discussion of issues ranging from Anita Hill to health/welfare reform, the flourishing industry of political talk radio, and the widespread recognition of many individual senators and representatives.

Nevertheless, I believe that the federal government is actually becoming more of a spectacle than a genuine forum for policy making. The transformation into spectacle and the decline of relevance are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.

In the past three decades, commerce&emdash;that is, the entire domain of business, finance, and employment&emdash;has undergone two significant changes. One is the expansion of international markets. While this is widely discussed and broadly recognized, the significance is not well understood. To take one example: Starting in the 1960s in the United States, and later in other countries, Finnish, Swedish, and Danish furniture and fabrics entered the local markets in every major American city. A few years later, before the end of the sixties, inexpensive housewares (dishes, cups, wall hangings, rugs, and chairs) entered these same local markets. Finally, at the end of the sixties, European and Japanese autos entered the national American market. Since then, imported retail and industrial products have become a growing component of American life. This internationalization of our market began in the sixties, and was not a post-war phenomenon, as some have suggested.

The second change was the reification of commercial plundering in the political world. As they do now, before 1980, many business and commercial interests sought to influence the policies of government on their own behalf, and usually they succeeded. The methods by which they did this included the use of covert funds, bribery, and financial subterfuge, tactics that generally are no longer used.

Beginning in the eighties, with the advent of political action committees (PAC's), commercial interests could openly pay political officials to represent their interests. Covert methods were no longer necessary. In the process, two things have happened. First, direct and overt influence of commercial interests on the public agenda has become generally acceptable to the electorate (less than 35 percent of which objects to PAC's); and second, a much broader base of commerical interests is now active in the political realm.

Prior to 1980, the companies most effective as political operatives were the more sophisticated and the more experienced ones, who tended to be the largest and oldest businesses. Now, everyone seems to have joined the fray, and new and small specialized businesses contribute actively to PAC's.

The effect of these two large changes in commerce has been to turn the federal government into a monolith that is unaffected by the electorate. Instead, it is increasingly the pawn of commerical interests. These interests, in turn, are increasingly concerned with international business.

What I'm saying is not new. It is similar to the old Marxist line: "The government is the puppet of the capitalist multinational oligarchy.".

But today, there are some significant differences in this general situation.

Commerce has always had influence on government, but before it became legal, aboveboard, and generally accepted, the order of magnitude was much less. International commerce was also several orders of magnitude smaller. There were only a few giant oil companies, arms manufacturers, and other prominent industrial giants doing international business. Since the 1970s, international commerce has become far more broad-based. There are dozens of stock markets, thousands of large multinational employers, and hundreds of thousands of companies carrying on import/export daily. And international commerce continues to expand. The consequence is that government has less and less power, while commerical interests have more and more.

Government is less relevant in our lives today because electoral politics have less significance over the operation of the government, which is largely at the whim of commercial interests. This is why I state that public spectacle has replaced significant policy considerations. With commerce controlling the real government, public officials have elevated public spectacle to a greater role.

The three best examples of this phenomenon are the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, which took center stage in government for over a week; the campaign of Ross Perot for president; and the defeat of the 1994 health reform legislation.

The Senate judical hearings on Clarence Thomas were the most universally experienced governmental activity since the assassination of President Kennedy. Part of the reason was the accusations that Justice Thomas liked pornographic magazines and films and had sexually harassed his employee a decade earlier. But the most important reason was that the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice had no significant commercial ramifications. This allowed it to escalate to the highest level of public attention without intruding on anyone's commercial interests.

The presidential candidacy of Ross Perot is another example. This campaign was elevated to spectacular proportions in the political realm. The reason was simple. It was non-governmental, and therefore non-threatening to commercial interests, because Perot was not a party candidate. If he had been elected president, he would have been powerless, as he would have had no party in Congress. Presidents elected with a majority Congress from the opposite party are invariably powerless (the exception was Ronald Reagan, in the month after his assassination attempt, when he got a unique tax cut package passed). A president without a party would even less powerful than Gerald Ford; that is, entirely powerless.

The defeat of a broadly popular health reform bill because it was too onerous for business is still another example. That this measure, which initially had strong popular support, was defeated is not surprising, because it was opposed by business. What is surprising is that the minor spectacle surrounding the issue turned the public against it in a short time. In this case, the spectacle was run on behalf of commerce and the tactic was enormously effective.

The point is that political issues can be large, central, and part of a public spectacle only when they do not conflict with the interests of commerce in the operation of government.

This analysis is not Marxist, even though Marxists such as Guy Debord have introduced and explored the concept of spectacle. This analysis is based on obvious examples of commercial interests being brought to bear on government, with public acquiescence. I believe that the primary concerns of commerce are the same as the primary concerns of the electorate: a stable government, a stable and equitable legal system, and civil equanimity. Unfortunately, the aim of commerce is purely one of economic benefit for those involved in the commercial enterprise, and has nothing at all to do with the common good of the electorate.

&emdash;Michael Phillips, 1996