Greg Palast on Firedoglake Book Salon on Robert Mutch’s Buying the Vote

A book review by Greg Palast for Firedoglake Book Salon

Buying The Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform

Using money to influence—ie. purchase—elections began when Thug gave Ugg a big, sharp rock in return for his vote for cave leader. It’s an ugly scene—and it has never stopped.

But with the advent of formalized democracy, purchasing a vote has gone through a psychological shift. With money, you can buy a voter’s neurons, board the brain like a pirate, and steal the booty—some poor schmuck’s “choice” made in a voting booth.

If political ads, balloons dropped at conventions, phone banks and all that detritus that makes for a US electoral campaign really can change a vote – and we know they can—then the candidate with the biggest pile of this partisan dreck, this mind-wrecking machine, has the best chance of winning. And as all this stuff costs money, the guy with the biggest pile is likely to have the I-just-won smile.

So this is what Tom Paine’s and Tom Jefferson’s democracy has come down to: sucking up bucks like a reverse ATM gone wild and spitting out attack ads linking Obama to Osama. Oh, mama!

It makes you want to puke. Better yet, it should make you pick up Robert Mutch’s Buying the Vote, terrific history of America, the one party state, that is Hezb’shekel—Party of the Cash.

The subtitle of the book is, “The History of Campaign Finance Reform”—which is a bit misleading, because it’s really a history of the failures of campaign finance reform. He makes some really useful points, each of which you should memorize and regurgitate when you hear cracked-brained ideas for campaign financing like, promoting small donations.

Remember the “money bombs” for Ron Paul? Paul’s start began with cash from the Brothers Koch and he’s never forgotten who holds the mortgage. Remember the gazillions of on-line donations in 2008 to The One We’ve Been Waiting For? Obama’s big cash came from Penny Pritzker, the rogue banker, banned for life from the finance industry by the federal government – and now our Secretary of Commerce. Who picked the Secretary of the Treasury? Why, Robert Rubin of Citibank who chose his protégé Tim Geithner. No $20 donors were in the smoked-filled room that turned the Obama Administration into a Club Med for bankers.

There’s some myth-busting along the way: Apparently Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t a campaign finance reformer — and he never claimed to be. Interestingly, the first campaign finance laws, enacted a century ago, didn’t require an enforcement agency because the 1% complied—and they tended to own all the candidates anyway. (You don’t have to bet on a horse if you own the race track.)

Today, the Right Wing, even the poor ones in the funny Tea Party outfits, oppose campaign finance reform. It’s become ideological with them. The free market says you can buy anything; why not the airwaves and thereby buy the House, the Senate and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave?

And that’s the gravamen of Mutch’s history of campaign cash: The main obstacle to reform isn’t the Supreme Court but the conservative politics that made that Court possible. Opposition to reform isn’t based on constitutional law but on a conservative theory of democracy that opposes efforts to reduce political inequalities based on wealth. The pigs who prosper from conservatives’ political argument use a twisted reading of the Constitution to put the lipstick judicial doctrine on the little porker.

And what the hell. I was a student of George Stigler back in my University Chicago days. Professor Stigler (NOT Stiglitz) who was famous for his papers, says that there should be open markets for ballots, open stock-table-like quotes to purchase Congressional votes. He believed that the public would best be served by an open and efficient market for bribery. And he won the Nobel Prize. (I never asked him if he bought it.)

Mutch has his competitors in the world of bitching about money in politics: Robert Post, Zephyr Teachout, Timothy Kuhner, and Ken Vogel.

Post and Teachout see the problem as legal (they are, after all, law professors), while Mutch sees the block to reform as political. Post wants the Court to change its definition of the First Amendment and Teachout wants to change its definition of corruption. Mutch’s position is that the Court’s definitions of those things are based on a conservative political argument. After all, The Nine on the court are all politicians; the law is simply a costume they put on with their robes.

Mutch does not believe you can get money out of politics with some new rule. That always fails. Better campaign finance laws would make for better politics, but we won’t get such laws until we have better politics. Public funding would be the ideal system, he avers, but it would take a tectonic shift in our politics to get Congress to pass such a law and to get political and economic elites to comply with it.

So are we screwed? Is there no hope. There’s always hope. Indeed, I’ve never seen a presidential campaign that doesn’t have “Hope” somewhere in the slogan—crafted by a team of PR mavens paid for by the billionaires who choose the puppets we get to choose.

* * * * * *
Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Billionaires & Ballot Bandits, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Armed Madhouse and Vultures’ Picnic , a BBC Television Book of the Year.

Greg Palast recently released his film Vultures and Vote Rustlers.

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