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Gore Vidal: A Corrupt System 
The People Who Own the Country Shouldn't Run It

Gore Vidal is the author, most recently, of Gore Vidal Sexually Speaking : Collected Sex Writings.

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Editor's Note: The following piece appears as the Foreward to Money and Politics: Financing Our Elections Democratically, an anthology of essays edited by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers (Beacon Press, 1999).

On a recent cross-country tour of the U.S., I chatted about politics with all sorts of audiences-sometimes in the flesh, more rarely from the tube where I once reigned but now, as our rulers grow edgy, am relegated to the cable margins (along with such fellow nay-sayers as Noam Chomsky). In these conversations I found again, despite ever greater media censorship of radical ideas, that my audiences were quite alert to the perfect corruption of our public life. They know that political offices are bought by those who can pay and denied to all the rest, that politicians are better identified with their corporate ancestry than voting base (the late Senator Henry Jackson, for example, being more accurately described as the Senator from Boeing than Washington state). But given this, I was often asked: "Why is nothing done?" "Why is there so little outrage" "Why is there no party of Reform?"

Why indeed? Writing in 1758, David Hume observed: "Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of the rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find out that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded, and the maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as the most free and popular."

To deny inconvenient opinions a hearing is one way the few have of controlling the many. But as Richard Nixon used to say, "That would be the easy way." The slyer way is to bombard the public with misinformation. During more than half a century of corruption by the printed word in the form "news"-propaganda disguised as fact-I have yet to read a story favorable to another society's social and political arrangements. Swedes have free health care, better schools than ours, child day-care center for working mothers... but the Swedes are all drunks who commit suicide (even blonde blue-eyed people must pay for such decadent amenities). Lesson? No national health care, no education, etc., because-as William Bennett will tell you as soon as a TV red light switches on-social democracy, much less socialism, is just plain morally evil. Far better to achieve the good things in life honestly, by inheriting money or winning a lottery. The American way.

The fact that the United States was never intended to be a democracy is so well known that it is now completely forgotten. (Hence the familiar, grinding incantation of our opinion makers: "We are the greatest democracy on earth, with the widest range of detergents, etc.") The most candid of the Founding Fathers, John Jay, put their opinion on the matter in an artless but truthful way: "The people who own the country ought to run it." James Madison, a preacher's son, poured unction over this when he acknowledged demurely and approvingly the iron law of oligarchy that invariably comes to govern parliaments, congresses, and nations. The few will always control the many through manufactured opinion, which bedazzles and confuses the many when it is not just plain dumbing them down into the dust of what Spiro Agnew called "The greatest nation in the country."

Nevertheless, a truly popular opinion is beginning to coalesce in the perpetual shadow of manufactured opinion: our system of electing politicians to office is rotten and corrupted to its core, because organized money has long since replaced organized people as the author of our politics. And most of it comes from rich people and corporations, who now own our political process-lock, stock, and pork barrel.

Some nuts and bolts. Of the billions now spent each election cycle, most is donated in checks of $1,000 or more. But less than one-tenth of one percent of the general population make individual contributions at this rate. These happy few are prepared to pay a high and rising price for the privilege of controlling our government. In the 1998 election cycle, the average winning House candidate cost the owners about $600,000. The average winning Senate candidate a bit over $5 million. Multiply both figures by two if you want the cost of dislodging an incumbent from office(in a system where, last time around, over 97 percent were re-elected. To finance a race in big media markets like New York, or California, it's a bit more expensive: as of election day 1998, something like $36 and $21 million respectively.

And if they tire of buying others, of course, the rich can buy political offices for themselves. In its truly Caligulaesque Buckley v. Valeo decision, our Supreme Court, ever eager to extend their eccentric notion of democracy, ruled that the rich have every right to spend as much of their own money as they like to buy an office. Hence, a demi-billionaire like Herb Kohl could campaign as "Nobody's Senator but Yours!", meaning not "yours" but "mine," and win.

Do the many really hold the opinions of the few who own the political process? It would seem not since only half the eligible voters can bring themselves to vote in a Presidential election while only a third vote in off-year congressional elections.

On dark days, I incline to what Henry Adams wrote at the start of "our" century. "The whole fabric of society will go to wrack, if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions… From top to bottom, the whole system is a fraud, all of us know it, laborers and Capitalists alike and all of us are consenting parties to it." Thus, business (Henry's Adam's "it") gets back much more from government than it actually invests in the process while the citizens don't even get a national health service.

The essays collected in Money and Politics: Financing Our Elections Democratically set out to illuminate-even undo-the "wrack". Why should we allow our admittedly fragile democracy to be for sale? Without limiting political debate, why don't we put ourselves to the task of sharing its costs so that elections would be more open and freely contested? On a per capita basis, those costs would be trivial-a few dollars a year. And by what hypocrite's indulgence could we not do this, and still call ourselves democratic? Reforms are working in the state of Maine. Will they work on a vast scale, in California, say? The US of A? This important book presents some new opinions and facts to challenge the current superstitions about our estate, its owners and alternative means of management.

To be sure, curing the evils of campaign finance will not solve all of America's other problems. But without such reform it is difficult to see how those other problems can even be addressed, much less dealt with.

This book -- full of the experience and hope of activists now struggling to reform our campaign finance system, and the perspective of academic students of it -- suggests a number of ways such reform might be achieved. It is the most informed and accessible discussion of the issue that I have seen to date. "Although the heart of man is made to reconcile the most glaring contradictions" (Hume again), now let us use our heads and deal appropriately, as they say in Washington, with a corporate ruling class that has hijacked the nation, and in so doing eliminate at least one glaring contradiction: that ours is a government of, by and for the many when it is so notoriously the exclusive preserve of the few.

Editor's Note: If you would like a copy of the book, click here to link to the publisher, Beacon Press. To go to the Beacon Press website, where you can read an early version of the articles published in the book, click here.



Published: Nov 12 1999


 




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