Public Service Announcements
Copyright © by Len Holman, 5/21/11
There are reports that Sarah Palin has made twenty million dollars so far. She quit public service (as governor of Alaska), and seemingly has stopped shadow-running for the Republican nomination (was she EVER a real contender?), with Fox dropping one of her shows, curtailing her “commentary”, and no doubt cringing at her dismal poll ratings. In recent polls, Mike Huckabee had come in first for the GOP nomination, but a lot of his people moved to other campaigns and he has said that his new business venture is finally making him some money, money he didn’t make while a public servant, so he won’t run after all.
Donald Trump got an ultimatum from NBC: tell us if you’re coming back to your “Celebrity Apprentice” show or run for the GOP nomination…your choice. The Donald, of course, did what he does best. He blustered, bloviated and puffed out his chest, conscious of the fact that he would lose a ton of money and the ability to sell his name to put on stuff like offices and hotels if he failed miserably as a potential politician—especially since his chances of winning that nomination were less than Seal Team Six appearing in a group shot on Facebook.
And the President is losing people from his administration faster than passengers went off the Titanic, with Secretary Clinton announcing she will leave, with press secretaries and cabinet people leaving, with the Secretary of Defense about gone—all saying something like needing “some personal time” or needing to “spend more time with my family.” These people who leave public office will all go into private industry as “consultants” or write books, or both. They will appear as analysts on TV and make a lot of money, for a change. They will leave what is unblushingly called public service to join what is termed the “private sector,” also unblushingly.
It is getting to the point where the only people who can, and often WILL, run for office are those whose bank accounts bulge more than their egos—which is quite a feat. Certainly, money is THE one political asset to have. And after a politician has indebted him- or herself, to the major donors, the family, the friends, the dog, and the guy next store who wants that pothole in the road fixed, there begins, almost immediately after the last balloon hits the floor, more fundraising to pay off that debt, not to mention all the access a truly polite and reciprocating politician will give to those big donors. Our President, say the pundits and wise political money-watchers, will be stashing a billion dollars in his piggy bank for 2012. That’s more than the entire GDP of many countries. But as the Supreme Court never tires of telling us—five of the Justices, anyway—money is speech, so we’re going to have a LOT of speech in this next election.
But there goes the neighborhood, because the Founders thought, naively, perhaps, that a democracy would be a grassroots, yeoman farmer, average citizen, participatory thing. Of course, at the time of our constitution, few would qualify to vote, but the idea of our democracy lies snuggled securely in the writings and speeches of the men who helped America get going as a self-sustaining enterprise. Now, we seem to have replaced citizen participation with millionaire participation. Is this good for us? I mean, just because a man or woman has a few bucks in the bank doesn’t necessarily mean he or she can’t be an effective representative. It DOES mean that we have lost, and will lose, the potential of many good people who don’t have enough money to buy a new fridge, let alone airtime on ABC. Money may be speech, and money may now be poured into a campaign, but are we better as a democracy because of it?
The presumptions about money and campaigns are interesting: When Michael Jordan gets paid a huge amount of money to advertise Haynes underwear, doesn’t that mean that the Hanes folks think the investment will pay off? Otherwise, they wouldn’t pay Mike anything, and Jordan would have to live off his earnings shooting roundball. It also means that Hanes (and other companies using celebrity spokespeople) thinks that the buying public is easily influenced by, say, some starlet telling me to buy a certain make of shoes to make my butt perkier. And there is the presumption that money buys quality—the “you get what you pay for” idea. The idea is promulgated by teachers, especially, that higher pay attracts better talent. Wall Street uses this rationale when they pay big bonuses to their people to “keep them from taking their talents somewhere else.”
But this is wrong. Teachers—good teachers, dedicated teachers, caring teachers—don’t teach for money. They get called, like Muhammad or Jesus or Martin Luther King, Jr. And Wall Street? Are you trying to tell me that if a Wall Street investor “only” gets a half-million dollars as a bonus (on top of his or her regular salary and other perks), he or she will take the football and go home, pouting all the way? Sure. I would. Public service is a calling, or should be. If it takes thirty million dollars to run for senator, what happens to those who really want to serve and have $1.98 in the bank? Why don’t we, as a public to be served by these people, demand every major news outlet give a half an hour a month to prospective candidates, free? Let’s hear what the non yacht-owning candidates have to say.
Maybe that old Biblical injunction should be changed to read, “The need for money in politics is the root of all evil.” Soon, very soon, we may have a total “buckopoly” in which only the wealthy, with every conceivable life option, will be able to run for public office, representing we, the people with old cars, sick kids, no jobs, a mortgage sinking us under the waves, crumbling roads, and no healthcare. “Representative democracy” can’t work if the representatives are from another financial and social planet. It can’t work if the choices we have are limited to people we can’t understand and who can’t understand us. What can be done? How can we get the attention of the movers and shakers? Do we keep playing their game or do something else? We have choices, but they are the kind of choices a parent gives to a child: “You can have the red one or the blue one.” The child’s choice has already been made by the parent. “What about the green one?” a kid may ask. To which an exasperated parent will no doubt reply, “The red one or the blue one. Choose!” We could vote for the Libertarians or the Greens or someone, but maybe—for greater effect and to show we’re serious about the democracy thing—the most impressive thing we could do would stem from this paraphrase of a 60s slogan: “What if they gave an election and nobody came?”
Return to Bylines