The ‘lite beer’ election: money’s corruptive influence

The Long View

Part 3

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams feared the impact of money on governance. In 1776 Jefferson invoked the spirit of Julius Caesar’s assertion that money buys men to warn that because it was so very human to “make interested use of every power [we] possess or may assume,” especially that of money, he and his fellow country-builders “should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when a corruption in this ... will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people, when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price.” And John Adams warned, in 1816, “Power always thinks it has a great soul, and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service, when it is violating all His laws.”

We are now in thrall to what Jefferson and Adams warned against. The rich, who are today’s powerful, may believe that they are doing good work by imposing their views on the country, but the violations of justice, fairness, equality of opportunity and the democratic principle thus produced are distorting our founding principles and making a mockery of our electoral and governing processes.

Today, while big money’s influence on the elections, the writing of bills and the distributing of justice is as obvious as it is pernicious, neither major party nor their presidential candidates address the issue. They’re too busy raising money to do that. Obama seeks to raise a billion dollars to counter an equivalent amount being raised and spent by Romney, and the total being spent by PACs is between $5 and $10 billion — to reach the approximately 42 percent of eligible voters who usually cast ballots, about 100 million people. And this does not figure in the money being lavished on lower-level campaigns.

It’s a sad fact that no candidate without a significant war chest seems able to win, and so, no matter how civic-minded your candidate may want to be, he or she must kowtow to the interests that can pay for a campaign — that means big corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals.

The vast amount of money spent does more than skew election results. It undermines legislators’ abilities to work for the common good by buying influence with them and hiring lobbyists to do their legislative work. Show me a congressional bill that hasn’t been touched by lobbyists and I’ll show you a bill that will never become law.

To cite just one example, pro-environmentalists, even those as well funded as the Sierra Club (annual budget $100 million, with 600,000 members) cannot compete with a ConAgra (annual income $12 billion), a Weyerhauser (annual income $17 billion), or an Exxon Mobil (annual income $433 billion). Small farmers, tree huggers, National Park preservers and those trying to clean up the shores of the Gulf of Mexico from the devastation of an exploding oil platform have little chance of having legislators and the president embrace their agendas when the elected are beholden to such large donors.

Similarly, and by consent of both parties, money has thrown the “reform” of medical care into the hands of private insurance firms. In defense spending, the equation of money and legislative clout is even clearer, as large contractors grease a system that perpetuates the need for wars by spending billions of tax dollars on unnecessary or nonworking weapons systems.

Washington’s revolving door virtually guarantees that legislators and defense department officials will have jobs after leaving government service, and therefore gives them reason to argue for those private companies while they are still on the government payroll. In the 1950s, 3 percent of retiring flag officers and congressmen took jobs with government contractors or lobbying firms; today, it’s above 50 percent.

Here’s the crux of the problem of allowing too much money too much influence on our government. It’s from a 1792 essay by a “professor of moral philosophy” that was widely circulated: “If any are raised above law, or enjoy privileges and prerogatives, which have no relation to the public good, and are burthensome to the community in proportion as they are advantageous to the possessors of them, the principles of civil union are opposed, political equality is subverted, and oppression, more or less grievous according to the degree of such inequality, is introduced.”

If we truly want a return to democracy, and to equal justice under the law, and to legislators who work for the public good rather than for private profit, we’re going to have to change our system. Starting right after the election, of course.

Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.