Charlie Pierce at Esquire:
It had been a long time since I was around a presidential campaign when I picked this one up in Iowa a little more than a year ago. The first story that hit me was the money. It still seems to me that the money is the only story in this whole campaign. It has deformed the process almost to unrecognizability. It has created a new normal that seems insulated on all sides from the people who are supposed to matter the most. If the president manages to hang on, it will be seen as a triumph of participatory democracy over legalized bribery, and we will all be encouraged to feel very good about ourselves because things turned out that way. But, seriously, were it not for the new political universe created by the Big Bang of the Citizens United decision, and were it not for the swiftly established metric that he who has the most money wins, the candidacy of Willard Romney would be an almost impossible burlesque. Four years after the titans of the financial-services industry nearly ate the entire world, the Republicans nominate a plutocratic maladroit who can barely wrestle a coherent sentence to a draw — “We start a new tomorrow tomorrow,” was yesterday’s gem — and who is entirely a creature of the very industry that had caused the misery in the first place. It is exactly the same as if the Republicans in 1932 had replaced Herbert Hoover at the top of their ticket with Andrew Mellon.
But the election is still within an eyelash, one way or the other, because Romney’s money, and all the other money that lined up behind it, made him credible. Exactly forty years after anonymous corporate cash became the first loose thread that would lead to the unravelling of Richard Nixon’s presidency, anonymous corporate cash is the coin of the realm. It is the measure by which we determine the fitness to lead the nation, to command the armed forces, to who gets their hands on the nuclear codes. It used to be popular to complain that we had turned politics into an advertising design competition, that we sold our candidates “like soap.” Now, we’ve turned the elections into investment opportunities, and we sell our candidates like beachfront condos or cattle futures. I am not at all sure this is an improvement.
But, recently, watching things on the ground here in Florida, I’ve come to think that there is an even bigger story than the money, that the money is merely the only story within the only story. I have watched at close range how very far politicians will go to use their institutional power as elected officials to deaden the instincts of self-government. It is the money that got them into place to do it, but what they’re doing is something far more insidious and dangerous. Actively keeping people from exercising the franchise is bad enough. But to continue, over and over and over again, to make the process harder and harder until a critical mass of people decides that self-government is not worth the bother, I think, is far, far worse.
There are legal and institutional remedies to the former. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 swept Jim Crow aside with a single stroke. But there are far fewer remedies to the steady, deliberate infusion of the habits of lassitude and futility into the emotional and intellectual bloodstream of self-government. There’s no easy antidote to that, and that kind of thing is exactly what most of the big money has bought for itself in this election. So, if the gentlefolk of the elite political press think this election to have been a grubby and wretched business, let them look around themselves and see the steady and febrile decline that the money has brought about.
But, while the process may have been grubby, and the tone of the debate wretched, there was a genuine debate to be had here, and it was worthy of all the best instincts of self-government that had been enervated, day by grinding day, by what our politics had become. It was a debate about the very nature of self-government itself, and about the value of the political commonwealth that is its only worthwhile creative endeavor. There is one side in this election that is far too timid, and far too closely allied with far too many people it ought not to be allied with at all, but which at least does admit the existence of a political commonwealth, and at least does recognize that self-government is an ongoing creative endeavor. And there is one side that simply does neither, and that has been quite clear about why it does not, and that has worked within the institutional structures of self-government to undermine the creative soul of the democratic project. And that has been a debate worth having, and that is the debate that will conclude today.