The "New" Politics

Nov. 2007

Politics has changed dramatically during my lifetime.  We are now seeing national and even state politicians who are amazingly out-of-touch with their constituents, imo.  In turn, that distance is fueling a backlash by voters and we are entering a period where muckraking journalism will again come to the fore. Soon, voters will throw some folks out of office.  Why?  Many pundits argue that, but I have a simple answer - money.

I worked in politics almost all my life here in Illinois, at the state and local level, so I have some standing in this area.  (Of course, credentials are not necessary - look at some of the TV and blog commentators now railing away.)  But, I have seen the business up close for over 40 years and to me it's obvious that money is the problem.  Let me explain.

(I want to make clear that I am not talking about stealing money or crooked politicians.  We have some of those, as all countries do, at all times.  I'm talking about ordinary politicians, trying to do a good job in the business of politics.)

The key is my use of the word "business".  When I started working in the political world, almost all the politicians I knew were people who had made their livings in some business and were successful enough (and well-known enough) that others wanted them to "represent" them in the state capitol or the county courthouse or the city council.  They never did it for money, because you couldn't make any money serving there.  Your business was teaching, running a bank, being a lawyer or doctor.  Other than being President or a member of Congress, serving in elective office was financially a drain, at best.

Holding political office was a service you performed because you were successful enough at something else.  All this had it roots in the Progressive Movement, but let's forget the history and concentrate on what happened.

Somewhere along the way, both the cost and the reward for entering politics increased.  It is probably part of the overall growth in America's power and financial success (see previous rant, er, musing on money).  Since politicians control the "purse strings" and the nation was becoming incredibly affluent, they thought, "why not raise our own salaries?"  And, an affluent populace went along with it.  I don't know about other states, but in Illinois, legislators currently make a salary, including allowances for office expenses and so-called "per diem" payments, that is at least double the average family's income here.  This makes holding office a very good job and it encourages you to fight hard to win re-election.

Staff people who work around the politicians had originally been hired to provide background analyses on legislation because of the sheer number of bills filed every year.  With increased legislative salaries (and office expenses) providing both the incentive and the means to hire more staff, these employees morphed into "personal" staff who worked on campaigns.  They could now be paid as campaign workers in off-session times.  Being creative, they looked for a niche to make a living - fundraising, constituent work, dealing with the press, etc.  These staffers are now an army of workers who travel around the country working on anyone's campaign (think "West Wing").

At the same time, the companies who own the newspapers and television stations saw, in the increased available resources, an opportunity to make some real dough from politicians who were naturally concerned about winning.  They began charging sizable rates for political advertising.  And special interest groups began collecting larger and larger amounts, so they could contribute "in bulk" for their members.  This bulk contribution scenario has become the de facto way to campaign at the federal level.

Each of these changes reinforced the others, with higher salaries bringing in more specialized staff, more competition to fund campaigns, more PAC's, more ads and more costly campaigns.  To give some perspective, in the 1970's a contested race for an Illinois House seat might cost an incumbent a few thousand dollars; today, many cost hundreds of thousands, and a few seats every election cost over $1 million for each candidate.  It's the same, to varying degrees, across the country.

It should now be obvious that the raising of funds is the main business of working politicians - incumbent and challenger alike.  Just look at the national presidential campaign in 2007-8.  Candidates are primarily judged on the amount of cash in the bank by virtually all news media.  (Former Illinois Senator Paul Simon declined to run for re-election several years ago, saying he just couldn't stomach raising $15,000 a day, every day, for 18 months.)

And, there you have it.  The political system has evolved into a money machine, where politics is a business - the BUSINESS OF RAISING MONEY. Incumbents have a job - it is to raise money to get re-elected, because increasingly, this is how they pay the bills; and no one wants to lose a job.  Legislation is becoming a means toward that end.  That's why so much legislation is either a meaningless "feel good" bill or one aimed directly at a special interest group with money to contribute.


Notice, I'm not accusing anyone of being corrupt - I worked with them and they are almost all honest.  I'm not even accusing anyone of being greedy, because they are generally not.  But there is one big difference money has caused.  Political office is now a job some fight to get and hold.  It used to be a service you were persuaded, by your peers, to perform.

I'm not the first to blame our woes on money, and there are constitutional problems with restricting contributions.  I do not support such restrictions, but I do think we need to find our way back to the place where politics was for amateurs.  Maybe all it will take is a major recession....