As the election season heats up with the wild excitement of a
rabies-afflicted Doberman Pinscher, it is better than a sure bet that at
least two dozen talking heads, a gaggle of newspaper editors, a few
tanker trucks of talk-show hosts and a handful of slow-cutting,
talkative barbers will start the banter of campaign finance reform.
As the word “finance” indicates, much of the debate hinges on
religion — the worship of the world’s favorite deity, mammon.
Everyone’s got an idea on how to best regulate the worship of money when
it comes to politics. There are the “Charismatics” and “Pentecostals”
who like a very free flow of money, the “Baptists” who want to return to
the fundamentals of campaign finance, the “Presbyterians” and “Reformed”
types who are really conservative about it all, and the atheists who
don’t believe money is even the issue. As it happens, this is the
only sense in which I’m an atheist — and a very strident one.
Ultimately, the problem with politics isn’t the money — it’s the
Politics is best understood by imagining special interest groups
jockeying around trying to influence government policy. My Webster’s
defines that practice as an “art or science.” While I think it’s pretty
clear politics is much more like a hustle than an art and more a voodoo
ceremony than a science, at the bottom it is simply concerned with
determining what the government will do.
Since the place money comes into play is in the campaign, let’s start
Consider the following scenario: Congressman Johnny Trots stands up
on some mossy stump, holding his lapels with thumbs in the air,
proclaiming to a crowd of onlookers that he’ll do A, B, and C if
elected. Meanwhile across town, Trots’ challenger, Joe Zilch, shakes a
few babies and kisses a few hands, promising to do X, Y, and Z if
elected. Who wins? The guy who can motivate the biggest constituency to
put a checkmark by his name on Election Day.
It’s all in the promises. A politician either promises things
because he really believes them or a focus group convinced him that he
had better either learn to like the idea or lie about it. The key is
coming up with the right package of promises, making the right offer —
the one that convinces the most folks to head to the polls.
Sad fact: Americans do not vote because it’s their civic duty.
Americans vote because they either like what one guy will do or hate
what the other will. Sometimes a “D” or an “R” behind a guy’s name is
all that’s needed to make a ballot sale, because they carry their own
implicit promises buried in that two-letter political cipher. Other
times it requires something far more explicit, a massive complex of
specific promises and commitments. Whatever it is, it all comes down to
what a voter expects in return for a vote. Voting is much more greed
than patriotism or a fetish for democracy.
For the politician, however, the trouble is it’s hard to get
enthusiastic about “a” vote. Going after individual voters — one vote
at a time — is tough. There are over 250,000,000 Americans. If only a
fifth of those are able to vote, that’s still 50,000,000 hands to shake
and a lot of shoe leather to wear out. Thus, for obvious reasons,
politicians like to go after blocks of voters — to “buy” them in bulk,
as it were.
To accomplish this task, pols deal with the Costco of campaigns:
Campaigners try to get the approval of certain lobbies and avoid the
disapproval of others. The hope of the office-lusty politico is that
the lobby will go to its members and say, “Vote for Johnny Trots” or
“Cast your ballot for Joe Zilch.” If the politician can win the favor
of a particular lobby, he wins the favor of a whole jumble of voters —
all at once. It’s like hitting 5,379 birds with one stone.
Here’s the hitch. When he stands before the leaders of that lobby
and says, “I want your vote,” they predictably ask that annoying
five-word question, “What’s in it for us?” If it’s the lobby that
approaches the politician, it works out the same way — the lobby has
money and votes, the politician wants to know what they want in return.
One way or the other, the process goes tit-for-tat. If someone is
unhappy with the deal, they stay at home and watch re-runs of “Home
Improvement” instead of voting. Simple.
The goal of the politician is to build a coalition to back his
“agenda,” which is a Machiavellian term meaning “wide assortment of
outlandish promises.” This coalition is formed mainly from the lobbies
that the candidate has wooed into his corner. In the case of politics,
having been “wooed” is a technical designation, meaning “willing to
write checks with many zeros at the end of a primary number.”
I used to work for a politician. I know how fundraisers work; I’ve
attended many. It all comes down to “Hey, I need money if I’m going to
do what I’m going to do,” which means in more honest language, “I need
money if I’m going to do what you want me to do.”
This gets back to the definition of politics, what the government
does. The lobby influences its members to support a candidate because
of what he’ll do for them. Thus, the root problem isn’t that so and so
wants to buy influence or has the money to do it; that’s only
reasonable. The problem is that the politician has the power to do it.
If the politician couldn’t fulfill his promises, the special
interests would stay home. What’s the point in supporting a guy who
can’t deliver? Thus the trick to campaign finance reform is to forget
about campaign finance reform. It’s not about pelf; it’s about
politics. Ergo, work on political reform instead. Work on
electing politicians who can read well enough to know that Article I,
Section VIII, of the Constitution limits their job description and that
the 9th and 10th Amendments are exclamation points to make sure the
politicians know we mean it.
We don’t need to destroy mammon. If we are to preserve liberty, we
need to destroy Moloch, the ghastly god of political power and
corruption. Real reform will only be had as we increasingly limit the
politics in our politics. As Hungarian novelist Gyorgy Konrad once
wrote, “For the rest of us who are not politicians, the less power a
politician has, the better — the less we have to fear from him.”