As we watch the Republican and Democratic party lines shift and watch protesters "occupy" Wall Street, Saranac Lake and elsewhere, we cannot help but think about how bad our politics are these days.
The root of it is politicians accepting money (usually for their campaigns) from corporations, unions and other special interests that want something out of it. This leads to "You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours" kind of deals - quid pro quo, in the Latin, legal phrasing.
The Obama administration's crony deal arranged for solar panel maker Solyndra and other "green jobs" companies is a scandalous example of the waste that comes from letting politicians give public money away to companies of their own choosing, usually ones who are paying big bucks to get those politicians re-elected. That's just corrupt.
In response, we now hear a lot of hypocritical talk from Republicans about how government shouldn't risk public funds trying to "pick winners and losers" in the private sector. Republicans have been doing this kind of thing for a long time, and for their campaign donors, too. Oil companies get federal subsidies. Gigantic factory farms rake in federal money. Corporate jet owners get tax breaks. The military-industrial complex feeds sweet deals to many businesses. Corrupt banks get bailed out.
Even without spending public money, lawmakers protect their campaign donors with laws, regulations or the lack thereof, such as shielding power companies' coal-burning plants from regulations that would lessen their mercury pollution into Adirondack lakes.
For Democrats, different industries are involved - solar and wind power, for example, and trial attorneys - but the game remains the same: Pay to play.
This has been made worse by the Supreme Court throwing out the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act in 2010 in the landmark case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. McCain-Feingold was problematic in that it limited people's freedom of political speech, but now with it gone, unions and corporations - even foreign corporations - can give as much as they want to American politicians' war chests. Without a doubt, they do this expecting something in return: money, tax breaks, government contracts, grants, regulations added or lifted, etc.
President Obama blasted the Citizens United decision right away, saying in his weekly radio address that it "strikes at our democracy itself." In his 2010 State of the Union address the next week he said, "The Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities."
If that's how he really felt, he shouldn't have taken the money for the Solyndra folks.
Quid pro quo money is like drugs: It's tempting but damaging to the politicians who accept it, and it also hurts the people who depend on them. While we aren't sure there's a solid legal solution to the corrupt pay-to-play cycle, we can propose a moral one: Just say no to large campaign contributions.
That may seem naive, but think about this: Wouldn't any politician who took such a pledge and stuck to it, under heavy public scrutiny, be noticed, praised and emulated? We hope so. Good behavior can be contagious, too.
What do these politicians use that money for anyway? Gas and other travel expenses, staff, yard signs and the big one, advertising - all of these are necessary, but with 21st-century communication and some creativity, candidates don't need nearly as much money as they think they do to get their messages out, especially if the message is compelling enough for people to spread on their own.
The federal and state governments give too much money to the private sector. Businesses should quit asking for handouts, but the responsibility for the people's money lies with the government - specifically with the people's elected representatives.