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How Not to Sell Out

What is the real scandal behind the practice of U.S. campaign financing — the amount of money?

January 31, 2002

What is the real scandal behind the practice of U.S. campaign financing — the amount of money?

When I worked on Capitol Hill as an assistant to a U.S. Senator 15 years ago, one thing truly perplexed me. For all the high drama that constantly appears to be the essence of U.S. politics — and for all the scandals that continue to pop up — there was one particular and peculiar phrase that truly sent shudders down the spines of Senators.

Faced with yet another mini-scandal over some issue or another, these overlords of American politics would intone in their well-honed, sonorous voices: “We have to avoid any appearance of impropriety.” To me, the Hill neophyte who had just finished law school, this was a weird way of looking at things.

You see, the strange thing was these powerful men pointedly did not refer to avoiding improprieties as such, but rather the appearances thereof.

Now, I’m no dummy. I had noticed for some time that Washington — just like New York City — is a city where appearances do matter a lot. But I had no strong conception of a world where mere appearances created by bad deeds evidently mattered more than those deeds themselves.

Later, I realized that there was a certain logic to those ritualistic statements. In the business of politics, dirty deeds are going to be committed anyway. Given that, the goal of preserving the integrity of democracy has to be modified a bit as well. According to this mantra, all is well on the ethical frontlines of U.S. democracy as long as things don’t appear improper.

And so it goes, in this peculiar American form of a kabuki show. Why kabuki? Isn’t that a Japanese form of ritual play, you wonder? Exactly. Its U.S. version is performed in this way: U.S. politicians rely heavily on campaign contributions. That is an acknowledged fact.

But rather than banning those payments outright, which would appear to be the proper thing to do, another little cottage industry is established — watchdog organizations monitoring the role of money in U.S. politics.

U.S. election laws have turned the chase for campaign cash into a never-ending crusade. But one can argue, supported by figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, that the problem lies less in amount of campaign funds — and more in the overall penetration of the system with such money.