The charm of democracy, as HL Mencken noted so long ago, is that it is the only truly amusing form of government ever invented. Unlike Mencken, however, I can’t feel only joy and mirth when watching how ridiculous our entire political system is. That great American democracy that we’re always talking about amounts to this:
Rich men (the candidates) sell themselves to Richer Men (CEOs and other corporate fatcats), promising to pass laws that will make them even richer and more powerful. The Richer Men, knowing a profitable relationship when they see it, promise to fund the efforts of the Rich Men, who then go on the campaign trail and, guided by Crooked Men skilled in the art of manipulation and deception (campaign consultants) make statements pretending to look out for the interests of the voters rather than the Richer Men who bankroll them. They make statement after statement that any reasonably bright 12 year old could identify as utter nonsense, and another group of Mediocre Men (the press) cover this process, asking questions of the Rich Men and receiving answers that no one above the most delusional or credulous would believe to be true. The Mediocre Men, naturally, report those answers as they are given without ever bothering to ask a follow up question to pin down the Rich Men or analyze the answer to determine whether it is true or reasonable.
A group of Empty but Charismatic Men (the pundits) spend all of their time on television discussing whether the ridiculous statements made by the Rich Men to the Mediocre Men will “resonate with the public”, also never bothering to ask whether the statements made by the Rich Men are even close to being true or reasonable (but all the while, the Mediocre Men and the Empty but Charismatic Men will remind you of the sheer grandeur of their duties in the most glowing terms – they are the “watchdogs of democracy” who hold the government’s feet to the fire, and their job is so grand and important that the Dead Rich Men (the founding fathers) insured their protection among their very first acts of government).
About half the eligible voters actually pay attention to this process, and they eagerly lap up the nonsense as fast as it can be shoveled out, also without bothering to ask if anything being said has any relationship to reality at all. For their credulity, they are showered with lies, exaggerations and half-truths, all of which find a sizable percentage of proponents among the voters. The Mediocre Men then do polls of those voters to see which ridiculous statements are finding favor, and the Rich Men take those poll results to determine what obviously false statements they’ll make next week, at which time the Empty but Mediocre Men will again pontificate on how well they’ve done. And the Richer Men laugh at this whole process, safe in the knowledge that no matter who wins, they’ll end up getting richer because, after all, they’ve paid for this entire farce.
If you want to see a perfect example of this sort of thing in action, look no further than President Bush’s recent statements about so-called “soft money” contributions being used to purchase political commercials. You see, there are limits, passed to make it look like the government isn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America, to how much money one of the Richer Men can give to the Rich Men for their election campaigns. But because the law that placed those limitations was only intended to provide a little window dressing to make the system look more honest (as opposed to intending to make it honest), there are these really big loopholes that allow the Richer Men to funnel unlimited amounts of money to organizations that are not tied (wink, wink) to the Rich Men, organizations that then spends tens of millions of dollars to purchase campaign commercials that (wink, wink) don’t support any of the Rich Men specifically.
Now here’s how it works in the real world. An organization with no ties (wink, wink) to John Kerry, funded by one of those Richer Men, buys airtime to air a commercial saying that President Bush was a draft dodger whose father got him into a cushy assignment in the National Guard rather than having to go to Vietnam. John Kerry publicly shakes his head and says how awful those unfair accusations are and how he does not in any way endorse such scurrilous charges being leveled at the President because he’s a better man than that.
Another organization with no ties (wink, wink) to George Bush buys commercials in a few key battleground states claiming that John Kerry is lying about his service in Vietnam, that he was not the brave and heroic young man he portrays himself to be, but was rather a cowardly and dishonest guy who exaggerated to get his purple hearts, and hell he may even have wounded himself on purpose. John Kerry publicly challenges George Bush to distance himself from those commercials from the organization he has no ties to, just as Kerry had publicly disavowed the commercials from the group he had no ties to (insert winks where appropriate). Come on, Kerry says, you can at least be as disingenuous as I was. But Bush, being the competitive soul that he is, decides to prove that he can be even more disingenuouser than Kerry (okay, I made that word up, but it sounds like something Bush would say, doesn’t it?).
One of the Mediocre Men asked one of the Crooked Men who speaks for the Rich Man (Scott McLellan, Bush’s press secretary), whether he would condemn the ads and he got one of those stunningly ridiculous statements in response. Rather than condemning the claims in that ad, the Rich Man’s Crooked Man said, President Bush thinks that we should do away with “all of the ads and activity going on by these shadowy groups” and calls for an end to “all of this unregulated soft money activity”. The Mediocre Man, careful not to say anything too abrasive, somehow gets up the gumption to press the question a second time and he is answered with what should have been, to anyone paying attention, an absolutely staggering statement:
Let’s be clear here. What the senator did was, he said one thing at the same time his campaign was doing another. His campaign went out there and essentially promoted this false negative attack at the same time Senator Kerry was saying he condemned it. The President has condemned all of this kind of activity, and he should join us in doing the same and calling for an end to all of it. Apparently he was against soft money before he was for it. And the President thought he got rid of all of this unregulated soft money activity when he signed the bipartisan campaign finance reforms into law.
Now, to anyone but a Mediocre Man more concerned about protecting his access to the Crooked Men and the Rich Men than about the truth, that statement should have sent up a huge red flag. The President thought he had outlawed unregulated soft money activity in political campaigns? To anyone but the Mediocre, this statement can only be viewed as either a flagrant lie, or simply one of the most idiotic things ever said by anyone since the beginning of time. If the Crooked Man is telling the truth, it means that the President of the United States is so utterly clueless that he doesn’t know what a major law does when he signs it.
Does anyone believe that Bush actually wants to ban soft money ads in campaigns? Only if they are a congenital idiot. Ban all unregulated soft money? That would require a law that says that no organization, whether a group of veterans or a teacher’s group or an environmental organization, could pool their resources together and buy an ad to persuade their fellow citizens of their position on an issue. Does he really want to pass a law taking away the right of groups of citizens to advocate political positions on the airwaves? Of course he doesn’t. No one in their right mind believes that he actually means that.
But does anyone call him on it? Has a single one of the Mediocre Men or the Empty but Charismatic Men even mentioned how flatly absurd his claim to want to outlaw soft money is? Nope. Has a single one written an article or delivered a statement on television about what such a ban would entail and why it couldn’t possibly survive a court challenge? Not that I’ve seen. They’re much too busy, you see, covering the horse race of the election to actually question anything one of the Rich Men says. After all, if they were to offend the Rich Men or their Crooked Men handlers, they might not get any more invitations to parties at the White House, and they surely wouldn’t get any of those “unnamed sources” calling them when they want to plant some surreptitious bit of information in the media. You expected them to actually live up to all that lofty rhetoric about the vital role of the press in keeping the citizenry informed and providing a crucial check on the government’s ability to deceive us? Ah, such naivete`.
All of this could be seen as great fun, as Mencken saw it. He delighted in puncturing the pretenses and pomposities of the politicians, and even more so in pointing out the ignorance of the earnest men and lodge joiners who fell for the whole charade. But I have a harder and harder time laughing about it these days. We live in a time of increasing danger, a time when we must somehow manage to avoid being destroyed by our enemies and manage not to destroy ourselves as well. There’s more at stake in a nuclear world than there was in the early 20th century when Mencken could find such amusement in the whole thing. We can no longer afford, I fear, to settle for the transparently false and the laughably absurd as answers to our problems. It’s time to stop listening to the rich men, the mediocre men and the crooked men. If we don’t, we may all end up as dead men.
Postscript: By the way, here is a list of all the 527 organizations active currently. It includes all sorts of groups, from industry PACs to human rights groups to anti-abortion organizations. All of which have a constitutional right to pool their money together and take out ads on television or in newspapers, don’t they? Did Bush really sign the McCain-Feingold law, the one he said he would veto because it violated free speech, thinking that he WAS banning all of that? No one is THAT stupid, right? The whole thing is absurd. But who is talking about it? No one.