My opinion about this has been building for a few years now, and has mostly crystallized. The issue is campaign financing. It is what I consider the "source of all problems" in the United States Federal Government. I have never heard anyone even attempt to justify the tit-for-tat that goes on between corporate and wealth campaign donors and politicians.
Lobbying by itself is not the problem. It is important that everyone be able to lobby government - whether that be an individual writing a letter to their congressman (which, contrary to popular belief, congressman and their staff actually DO read), or a group of people sending a paid lobbyist to plead their case. There is also an argument to be made that it is inherently unfair that corporations and other organizations can hire lobbyists. But I'm not going to address that here - I think the money issue is far more pressing.
What is so screwed up is that in order to stay in office, a congressman has to spend an amazing amount of time fundraising. And in order to get that money, congressmen are incentivized to pass laws which are favorable to their donors. The old line that "money doesn't influence our legislative decisions!" is silly - why the hell would they give you money otherwise? In any case, the tit-for-tat is well documented (OpenSecrets being the best source, since they draw directly from congressional records).
What bugs me is that this is truely a non-partisan issue, and that almost everyone agrees that it is a problem. Hell, here's a video of Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart agreeing with each other about this (advance the video 7:00).
Even congressman acknowledge that this is a problem, and I sense a sort of desperation from them when they talk about it. They KNOW it's a problem, but the system is so rigged and self-reinforcing that there is a sense of resignation about the feasibility of fixing it. (Rand Paul gave a good spiel about this and congressional paralysis in general. I can't find a video of it, so you'll just have to take my word that it exists.)
I always feel a little presumptuous when I bring up political issues like this. But... I really feel like there is a consensus about this issue. To make a car analogy:
- Designing a car is more of an ideological problem, since the performance and utility characteristics are mostly subjective. Certain things are obviously better (e.g, 40mpg is better than 20mpg), but most design decisions are subjective (How much space do we need in the trunk? How do we layout the console? Do we want more engine performance, or a lower cost?). There is lots of room for argument about how to design a car, and it is hard to call any one decision "wrong".
- Fixing a car that isn't running properly is a practical problem. Fixing mechanical problems is not always straight-forward, but the measure of success is an objective one. Engine producing crappy horsepower? Tune it up, replace a few components, and all of the sudden it runs "better" in an objective sense.
I believe that the problems of campaign financing fall squarely in the latter category. A congressman's job description is very clear: to represent his constituents and to advance the welfare of the country as a whole. They are failing.
Some would argue that donating money to a Politian’s campaign is a form of free speech that ought to be protected. I would argue that it is a form of anti-speech, it's sole purpose being to drown out the voices of others. It's like bringing a megaphone to a debate and shouting down your opponent at 120dB. That megaphone is not a tool for expressing your opinion; it is a tool for silencing your opponent. TV advertisements are the weapon of choice for modern politicians, and they are quite effective.
That's the problem, and unfortunately I don't have a good solution to offer. I am not convinced by many of the proposals offered (public financing of campaigns is probably the major one). I do, however, see a tie-in to the issue of wealth inequality.
Objectively, wealth inequality by itself shouldn't matter. Inequality has gone up, yes, but so has the material standard of living of the poor. What does it matter if someone else makes 100 times your income, as long as your lot in life is always getting better? Libertarians often make what I think is a very strong case for that position. While incomes for the poor and middle class have stagnated, the actual material wealth of those people has increased. What does it matter if your income has stagnated? That's just a number. The material wealth you have is REAL, and it has gotten objectively better over the years, even for the very poor. So, from that perspective I reject the standard liberal argument and embrace the libertarian one.
The libertarian argument is only concerned with material wealth, and that is not the only criterion we should be measuring when talking about the "wellness" of the poor. Another is political empowerment, which really ought to be just as important. In a system such as ours, money can be used to effectively buy political power. And in such a system, income inequality directly translates into power inequality. I would argue that the political power balance in this country is severely skewed towards the rich. Simply put, if you have more money, you can donate more to your favorite candidate and increase his odds of winning.
It is important not to get tied up in "the unfairness of it all!". We should be concerned about the effects of income inequality, not the inequality itself. That last point is where I feel Occupy Wall Street is getting their messages mixed up, and why I cringe a little at arguments that we should just tax the rich more (because they're RICH!). The second part of OWS's manifesto is that money ought not influence politics to the extent that it does, and I think they would be wise to adopt that as their primary message.
Income inequality is a driving force behind the mass disenfranchisement that is occurring in this country, but it is not the source of the problem. Rather, the structural flaws in our campaign finance system are what lead to the effective disenfranchisement of the people. It is the #1 problem affecting our country.