I grew up watching politics the way most guys watch sports. I learned about the different teams, the players, the coaches, the history of the game. As I approach the big 5-0, I’ve seen how the game has changed over the years.
I came of voting age when Reagan took office, and he had my support. He was genial, funny, warm and friendly. He didn’t waffle – you knew where he stood. Back then I had an older friend, a preacher for a small church, who supported Carter. When I told him I liked Reagan, he stopped talking to me.
Ayn Rand was big back then. One of her acolytes, a fellow by the name of Robert Ringer, wrote books like “Looking Out for Number One.” I read Rand and Ringer and the logic seemed impeccable. Individualism – being self-supporting, self-reliant, and independent – had a lot of appeal to an impressionable teenager.
Here we are, 32 years on. The nation has certainly moved rightward during my adult life, fueled by large infusions of corporate cash. Money has always been an influence in representative democracy – in both of our major parties – so that’s not new. What’s new is the scale and scope. Over the last five years, Senator John McCain has joked that Congressional approval ratings among voters are so low – nine percent – it’s now down to blood relatives and paid staff.
You do realize that the public prestige and power you possess is illusionary, don’t you? You spend most of your time begging rich people for money, then doing their bidding. You rationalize that you’re a victim of the system, that you do the best you can within the constraints you face. You enjoy attention from the media, you have staff who echo your convictions, and local people who regard you with some measure of awe. But you also know, deep down, that you’re being pimped out to interests that regard you as a tool, a means to an end.
To be fair, to a large extent you are a victim of the system. Maybe you participate in it fully aware of your role. Okay. But realize as you do so, you corrode the very foundation of civilization. The foundation is built upon trust. With every campaign contribution that circumvents the values of your constituents, every bribe that persuades you to discard your own values, you undermine the webs of trust that have been painfully constructed over centuries.
Most of you are lawyers — you know something about contract law. Contracts backed by a standards-based justice system make it possible to agree on terms and do business with reasonable confidence. When that confidence evaporates, when trust has no firm foundation, nations fail. The U.S. economy recently took a direct blow to the face and went down hard after it turned out a real estate bubble was based on lies and manipulation. We can’t take this kind of punishment indefinitely.
Representative democracy can’t be limited to the players who have the most cash. Business has a huge role, but business is nothing without customers. If the playing field is tilted toward business and consumer interests are neglected, business will also suffer. We need balance. Without that balance, the American economy will take on water and sink just as surely as the Titanic did. You may find yourselves going down with the ship.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to go on with these wild income disparities. Most importantly, we need to break away from the pattern that favors the most monied players. And the people best positioned to make that break are you. All of you, in both parties, and especially those of you in the leadership. You are kidding yourselves if you think your role is advancing ideological goals.
Your role, too often, is prostituting your country for the benefit of corporate interests. Sometimes their interests are aligned with countries’ interests, and sometimes they’re only aligned with their own. You need the wisdom to recognize and understand the difference, and possess the independence and ability to act accordingly. How ironic that Congress has grown reliant – dependent – on corporate cash to remain in office.
When I was a young man contemplating the American political landscape, the middle class was strong. Today, it is being decimated by a dollar that has lost much value, faltering employment, deep debt and uncertain prospects for upward mobility.
The values of independence and self-reliance will crumble if “my way or the highway” remains the credo of congressional leaders. Hold your noses and figure it out. Work together. Build a new campaign finance structure that allows you to wean yourselves from large donors.
If you want respect – lasting respect, real respect – get it done.
We’re watching…and voting.