I’m shocked, shocked to find that politics is going on here
At least Captain Renault had the intellectual honesty to only feign outrage when he sardonically claimed that he was “shocked, shocked” that gambling was going on in Rick’s club in Casablanca. The recent instances of selective indignation over the influence of money in American politics hasn’t even got that going for them. Rather, when it ...
At least Captain Renault had the intellectual honesty to only feign outrage when he sardonically claimed that he was “shocked, shocked” that gambling was going on in Rick’s club in Casablanca. The recent instances of selective indignation over the influence of money in American politics hasn’t even got that going for them. Rather, when it is not something worse, it is just breathtaking hypocrisy on the part of political leaders and commentators. And as such it frames the starkest of all political tests for a Barack Obama who claims to both seek and represent the end of politics as usual.
The harsh reality is that politics in the United States is just as corrupt as that in many Third World backwaters. However, rather than passing around bags of cash, we have socialized and sanitized the pay-offs to appear acceptable. (Although we do also have the occasional case of congressmen with freezers full of cash which always add a little comic relief.) By creating laws that set ineffective, complex guidelines for what is clearly corrupt behavior we dress it up, obfuscate it and we even make it legal, but we don’t change what it is.
The past few weeks have a seen a parade of examples of dubious behavior that have been treated by politicians and the media with their usual self-serving inconsistency. The pay-to-play allegations behind the Richardson withdrawal are just the latest instance. The Richardson allegation is troubling not because he necessarily did anything illegal — frankly I would be shocked if he did — but because it illustrates, as does the Blagojevich case, the pervasiveness and risks associated with the role our perverse campaign finance system plays in American politics. Because of the dependency of politicians on cash to pay for the campaigns that keep them in office, our form of democracy permanently takes place in a grey area in which the motives of donors and politicians must continuously be questioned. All that Richardson was likely doing was just practicing American politics as usual. Take the money on which you depend to stay in office. Slap the donor on the back. And insist it has no influence on the business of government. But do we really think that donors give without expectation or hope of a return on their investment? Let’s be serious, folks. This is how American politics works. People lay out the cash to buy access and, as a consequence, influence. Every day.
Take the current scandals on Wall Street. Who do you think were among the big donors to the Schumers and the Dodds who were supposed to be overseeing the markets? Employees of big Wall Street companies. Do you think that predisposed these senators to look the other way? To buy the line of malarkey that they were being sold that all would be well if they just let the financial whizzes self-regulate us all to prosperity? To simply think the best of people they saw as allies? Such an example illustrates that it doesn’t take a payoff captured on a grainy videotape to compromise the integrity of the system. Money is an addictive, corrosive, anesthetic drug that blurs the vision making it harder to tell right from wrong, constituents from shareholders.
Is it possible that we let this all happen through naivety? No one is that clueless, even members of Congress. We just collectively decided to look the other way. There obviously can be no effective oversight of Wall Street or any other sector if public officials responsible for that oversight can also accept campaign contributions from those they are supposed to be scrutinizing. Until we change campaign finance laws to alter this reality, reform is a sham.
Similarly, we have seen a remarkable double standard when it comes to the idea of what exactly constitutes pay-to-play in American politics. Blagojevich “shocked” America when he allegedly suggested to a representative of Jesse Jackson, Jr. that he might want to raise some money for Blagojevich in exchange for the job. Yet, I heard on one morning cable news show a discussion five minutes after indignation at Blagojevich arguing in favor of Caroline Kennedy’s nomination for the U.S. Senate precisely because she would be a great fund-raising asset for N.Y. Governor David Patterson and that this was a reason he should pick her. Inconsistent? No. Just hypocritical.
The reality is that Blagojevich, apparent sleaze ball that he is, has made two big errors regarding the Senate seat (I can’t speak to his other acts of alleged corruption here although a deeply troubling picture has been sketched out). First, his case was too close to the President-elect and thus it was painfully uncomfortable for the incoming Administration and its supporters. Second, he was as crude as a meat cleaver in his language and his actions. But was he at core doing anything that out of the ordinary in American politics? Probably not. (And when the first big donor becomes an ambassador in this Administration, will that be anything different? Also no.)
In fact, the painful reality for Democrats who care about these issues is that Blago aside, one of the most troubling developments in recent memory was Barack Obama’s decision to abandon his pledge to accept public campaign financing. Now, I get it…if you don’t have power, you can’t act on behalf of the public good. And I’m a Dem. I wanted Obama to win and was very pleased by his victory. But becoming the first $750 million candidate for the presidency does not send a good message, to say the least…even if it was all for a good cause. Many donations were from small donors. That’s clearly a good thing. Transparency was also very high, another step in the right direction. But lots of the money came from bundlers and big donors who will soon be seeking influence with the Administration. Keeping lobbyists out of the government sounds great. But it ignores the fact that a.) some lobbyists are legitimately representing the interests of segments of the community as we would hope for in any democracy and b.) that the real problem is that we have created a system in which our political leaders are addicted to cash.
So, the test is clear. If we are to see real and lasting change in American politics, then we will need to see changed campaign finance laws that preclude donations that create conflicts of interest for officials with oversight responsibilities and shut the door forever on insanely big money campaigns by limiting the duration of campaigns and moving toward a publicly financed system, even if that means amending the constitution to get around the “free-speech” defense for check-book democracy that is one of the favored arguments of the defenders of money orgy (who oddly enough have it and thus want to protect the edge that gives them versus those who do not). Politicians ought to welcome the opportunity to operate outside the shadow of a doubt. And finally, to rid ourselves permanently of this problem, we will need to see the media cover this cancer on our system for what it is, without bias toward candidates or parties they may want to see in office.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.