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Thomas F. Miller Headshot

Shame of Fools

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We are outraged. We first had some tea parties and then we were occupied, but it seems things are only getting worse. People say our system of government is broken, and we agree. But how, exactly, is it broken and what, exactly, can we do?

First the story...

They left a few days after the congressional super committee issued its flatulence. The elderly couple had simply had enough. It took them longer to leave than it used to, in part because they needed someone to watch the coonhound and then there was Thanksgiving with the kids down in Knoxville.

On December 3 some tourists in Washington, D.C. posted a video to YouTube. Our couple, looking a bit like that Grant Wood painting, stand arm in arm just outside the Capitol with a single sign each.  One sign faces toward the Capitol and says "Have You No Shame" and the other looks outward and says "Join The Circle of Shame".  Twenty seconds into the video, a plump matron and a suited striver stop, smile and join in, arm in arm in arm in arm the four of them. And then right away three more join, giggling school girls this time, two on one side and one on the other.

Slowly slowly they wandered to the forming circle. Slowly slowly it grew and steadily. Three hundred and twenty-two by the end of the day and a mention by Jack Cafferty, not one of his famous questions but more of a "look at this strange thing" type of aside.

They came at dawn, and all morning, and three young clerks at the Supreme Court joined them for lunch. Arm in arm all faced the capitol, and with signs in evidence but only the original two messages. Then a sea of signs, enough to complete a vast circle around the entire Capitol grounds. Those inside could only get out through a corridor kept by very polite police in two solid lines from the north entrance directly out several hundred feet to Constitution Avenue. Not many went back in. It was shutting down.

Wolf Blitzer found our couple, both retired accountants and living in rural Kentucky, and asked them their demands.  The woman, silver hair worn straight to her thin shoulders, turned to look dead level and unblinking at Wolf (as Kentucky women tend to do) and said: "Mr. Blitzer, we love this country. We know we are in trouble, something has gone wrong deep, but we did not know how to lend a hand, to chip in. We felt helpless and looked to find a voice."

Her husband added, with a wave of arthritic knuckles:  "Our senators and congressman don't have time for us; heck, we have better response from the cable company. They need gobs of money to get elected and that means they have to take care of those who give them money. It is as simple as that. But Mr. Blitzer it stinks to high heaven and every person not on the tit knows it for what it is. We do not own a congressman, so this," his hand swept off to his right "is all we know to do."

Wolf allowed as how it was difficult to achieve change unless you knew what change you wanted to see. The woman looked down a moment and then back up. "What does a regular person do, Mr. Blitzer? I know nothing of government, but I know a wild hog when I see one. Sometimes, we can only scream." Still looking at Wolf, she nodded twice enthusiastically in that throat-forward way of some women.

Her husband finished: "The political foxes are in charge of our public chicken houses and there is no way the grasping parasites are going to give back the keys without a fight. We can expect naught but perfect perfidy from the people who vote themselves sweetheart benefits and outrageous special privileges and then do not do their job. To put it short and sour Mr. Blitzer, the fix is in."
That was on TV, over and over again, so the next day there were 2 million, larger even that the most generous estimates for Obama's inauguration.  And then it began.  One person and then another saying in a hissy sort of way "shame shame shame."  The chorus swelled, billowed and dove, like those flocks of starlings you see riding the early November wind.

Authorship unknown, the bumper sticker words were quickly seen by all on smart phones or tablets. And it was in the very air, the excitement of word of mouth, how news spreads in waves and rebounds in all directions in the middle of mass political protest.

It Is Time

Now the crowd would mix "resign, it is time" with its chant of "shame shame shame" and all to the tune and driving beat of Aretha's Chain of Fools. Dancing was unavoidable. She could not make it to the event, but Aretha tweeted twice.

A new sign appeared, simply: "537".  Veterans came in uniform.  The Occupy Wall Streeters hosted a Tea Party. Springsteen sang of hometowns, Jay-Z rapped of the 'hood and Joan Baez told us what she would do if she had a hammer. The good old days redux, only with crisp tweets painting a dense pointillist scene for all who were not there.
There was no camping. The crowd had learned the authorities were most reluctant to interfere with people who were only standing and voicing their views. Instead, doors were opened throughout the city; some were restaurants and some were offices and some were homes.  Protesters came and went as their agenda and energy allowed, looking for the telltale gold circle on a door or window.
A senator near retirement was the first to go.  He had been sympathetic and now saw his chance to catch the running tide before it was too late, if you are a cynic, or to make a difference in the right direction at long last, if you are of a more charitable nature.  Being a politician, he resigned with a flourish on the Capitol steps with the TV cameras rolling.
Others saw the wisdom, or the tide, and soon ran with it.  Then it was done.  The United States of America, for the first time since John Hanson was elected president in November 5, 1781, had no elected leaders at the national level.  None.
But each state has a way of replacing resigned members of congress. Within a few months congress was back at work but with fresh new faces, all old alliances and devils' bargains burned by the very hellfire in which they were born.  All was sweetness and light and everyone lived happily ever after.  The couple from Kentucky returned to their home on the shoulder of a ridge just into the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains.  The deer and wild turkeys were running low on shell corn and it was looking to be a hard winter.

We were thinking this episode entirely believable until we happened to notice that if all 537 elected national politicians resigned, then current succession law would automatically make Hillary Clinton the president.  We suspect that prospect might add a few wrinkles to the proceedings.

... and now the editorial.

So, we guess that plan is ruined. But if mass protest, first from the right and then from the left, leave the system undinged and the gravy train uninterrupted, then what?

Our outrage at politicians hits only half the target. They are only doing what they are paid to do. The question is who is paying them and you already know the answer. It is not just corporations or the rich (we say to the Occupy movement) and not just godless liberals (we say to the Tea Party).

We should not be surprised that the rich have more influence if we have a system that equates money with voice, but it is not only the rich that take advantage. So do places such as the AARP and NRA and the teachers unions as they amass war chests from a large number of small contributions. While they do not represent people who are rich, their very purpose is to pursue a narrow special interest as opposed to the broad public interest. The "public interest" is an interesting concept and we wonder who will represent it if all the campaign money comes from special interests.

Think of elected politicians as referees, hearing from all the special interests and differing views, short term and long term, intended and unintended consequences, who must decide how best to vote. That is what they told us in school and it still sounds right.

But what if this democratic system we used to brag about allows special interests to pay off the referees? The public pays the salaries and expenses of elected officials, but they receive far more money from special interests to underwrite campaign expenses. How can we expect them to listen to the average voter? We cannot.

Serious reform in a democracy requires looking in the mirror. Whatever energy you have been putting into worrying about our debt or our budget or our wars or our education system or our immigration system or our criminal justice system or our energy policy or pick whichever issue you like; whatever energy you had been putting there, stop now. As long as money rules the process, your studies and your debates, and even your votes, will make no difference at all.

It is unarguable. In three decades we have made dismal progress on any of the key issues facing this country and we will not fix our political dysfunction until we find a way to continue our justified reverence for freedom of speech while curbing the ability of special interests to buy our politicians. Yes, it will probably take a constitutional amendment and that will be a very big fight because these foxes have no intention of giving us back the keys to our chicken house. Wild hogs like to root and parasites to suck.

They will come forward quickly with lists of reasons why we can't even think of restraining the role of raw money in elections. They will say it disadvantages the challenger and gives undue power to incumbents. They will say it attacks a bedrock principle that every citizen has every right, nay responsibility, to advocate for their political and policy beliefs. They will be right about both those things.

But they should also remind you that a bedrock function of government is to decide between competing rights when they clash. Citizens should each have an equal say in our civic affairs, one vote and one voice. The use of money to gain a larger say, to have a larger voice in advocating your self interest, does harm to a fundamental principle of democracy.

Under current law and practice, we have a system that gives special advantage to special interests, disadvantages the public interest, and creates an incentive for bribery, to call this spade by its true name.

We need to put squarely on the table this clash between the right to purchase political influence against the right to an equal say in the setting of the basic rules by which our society abides. At the very least, let us admit once and for all that the private funding of political campaigns results in extra political influence for those giving the money. If we choose to tolerate it, then let us do so explicitly and stop complaining.

The entire point of this screed is to argue that we can achieve a better balance, that it is urgent we do so, and that normal political avenues and even mass protest will not work. Of course we have overstated our case, as do all such screeds. Not all politicians are bought and not all special interests are venal. But the incentives are in the wrong direction and the money pulls ever harder. As it becomes clear that money is necessary to political office, candidates are more and more of a type that is comfortable with the selling of influence because that is where the money is.

We are in full favor of lobbying, of reports and arguments and papers and pie-charts and debates. We all rightly cherish the right to petition congress for redress. Politicians need all the information they can get and can tell wheat from chaff. But we fully oppose a system in which a politician gives your views more attention than mine only because you gave more money.

We guess that is debatable, it is the essential judgment upon which this question turns, but that is our position. Arguing with the referees is fine, but paying them off is not. We are surprised it is even necessary to say that.

Will someone please step forward, someone with a loud and respected voice but no serious special interest entanglements, someone with a demonstrated commitment to the public interest? We should not name names, but if we did they would include a Warren Buffett, a Jennifer Lopez, a Pete Peterson, an Oprah Winfrey, a David Ho or a Pat Summit or any of a rather long list of accomplished and "uncaptured" Americans who could serve ably in this way. We would encourage several of them to band together, if we were brave enough to issue such instructions to such people.

We need a few good nonpoliticians for a gargantuan political task. In our new Pogo moment we know we make the rules, and that it is time to revisit them, but we don't know how to do it and need someone to lead us there. In the soft hills of Central Kentucky, one couple of eager followers awaits with coonhound and pitchfork at the ready, just in case they are needed.