Original Commentary

Corruption in plain sight

Big money solidifies its iron grip on the state political system right before our eyes

There’s an old adage that money is “the mother’s milk of politics.” And it’s a truism that’s long been hard to deny. From the blatant vote buying that has long afflicted American politics at the local level to the ongoing horror show that currently blankets our TV screens; the most successful American politicians are almost always the ones with the most cash to spend.

And yet something is clearly different in 2012 – and not for the better.

Consider the following:

Earlier this week, staffers for the President Pro Tem of the North Carolina Senate sent out a “tweet” on their boss’s official account that said the following:

“raised over $300K last night at the home of Jim and Ann Goodnight. #ncpol #ncga #ncsen #ncgop

A new kind of boasting

For those not familiar with the 140 character universe of Twitter, the purpose of this little nugget was simple and straightforward: to boast and send a message to the world at-large that the big money powers in North Carolina are lining up behind the Senator and the other candidates he funds.

Now in some ways, this kind of communication is nothing new. Politicians have been bragging to the reporters who cover them for decades about their fundraising successes. Usually in the past, however, such communiqués have taken the form of press releases that touted a candidate’s successful monthly or quarterly haul that he or she was reporting to election officials. The tweet from Senator Phil Berger takes things to another level.    

You see, by tweeting this statement, Berger is not just speaking to reporters; he’s reaching out directly to the 2400-plus people who “follow” him on Twitter as well as the uncounted others who happen to follow the “hashtags” included in the tweet (i.e. the funny-looking abbreviations that are attached to the “pound “ symbol). The tag #ncpol refers to North Carolina politics. The #ncga tag is for all who follow the North Carolina General Assembly.

Got it? No longer is the fact that a politician raked in big wads of cash something merely to be spun to (and filtered through) reporters. Our politics have reached such a cynical nadir that facts like this are now something to be pushed out proudly and directly to average citizens.

And mind you, the tweet in question wasn’t merely something along the lines of “Hey look how many average citizens I’ve got backing my campaign with small gifts.” To the contrary, it was a direct and chest-thumping boast:

“Hey look at me: North Carolina’s richest couple had me over to their house and convinced some of their friends to pony up some big cash – a cool $300,000 in one night!”

Our brave and cynical new world

Of course, the tweet is just one rather disheartening example of a broader trend. First of all, Berger’s Senate predecessor Marc Basnight and current Democratic gubernatorial nominee Walter Dalton have both been recipients of Goodnight largesse. Moreover, Berger is not the only player in the political game to take things down such a crass and cynical path by making the ability to raise money the test of a politician’s viability and credibility. Mainstream news coverage itself is now almost exclusively about reporting the money game.

Look, for example at North Carolina’s best known newspaper politics column, the News & Observer’s Under the Dome.”  During recent election seasons, scarcely a day has gone by in which it has not included multiple stories about fundraising and/or a link to a candidate’s latest TV ad – which is often just a backhanded way of following the money game since poorly-funded candidates can’t afford many TV ads..

Berger’s tweet about the big take at the home of the Cary billionaire was dutifully reported in the column just two hours after Berger’s staff sent it out. Meanwhile, substantive coverage of the actual issues is confined mostly to “fact-checking” in which (what else?) commercials are vetted for the veracity of specific claims and attacks.

A similar phenomenon has been at work in the national presidential race for several months (years, really). How else to explain the political staying power of a troubled and broadly unpopular has-been like Newt Gingrich? The answer, of course, was that one fabulously wealthy individual – casino mogul Sheldon Adelson – was willing to personally bankroll Gingrich’s campaign. The media knew it and reported it frequently as an indicator that Gingrich remained a “viable” candidate long after anyone with any common sense had dismissed his campaign as an absurd ego trip.

Losing our bearings?

What makes this trend most disturbing, of course, is the brazenness of it all. There was a time in American politics – not that long ago, in fact – in which politicians attempted to keep the matter of money and campaign funding mostly hidden from view and the news media treated its discoveries of such relationships as, for the most part, scandalous. This was especially true if the candidate was relying upon or making league with a small cadre of fat cat funders. In such situations it was simply assumed that the public would, rightfully, view such relationships as, almost by definition, corrupt. 

Now, however, especially in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 decision to accord free speech rights to corporations in the Citizens United case, it appears that this critical moral compass has been abandoned. In this new and pessimistic environment, cynicism about politics and politicians has reached such a level that no one even blinks an eye at the notion that a handful of super-rich individuals are buying access to our elected leaders (or even buying them outright).

Instead, the mainstream news media simply reports it as if it was a sporting contest and, rather than keeping the information private for fear of what the public will think, the politicians actually boast of their inherently corrupt relationships quite openly as indicative of their “strength.”

Let’s hope that something occurs in the near future to shock Americans out of their complacent cynicism. Until that takes place, it appears that the wholesale sell-off of our political system to the highest bidder will continue apace right before our eyes.

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