Whack-a-mole: A lesson in the unexpected consequences of ‘cleaning up’ politics

November 3, 2014

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I may be the one person who listens to the election news and thinks about Benjamin Harrison. You don’t remember him? President of the United States from 1888-1892? The scion of a political dynasty that yielded enough failed presidencies to make the Harrisons the Bushes of the 19th century? So why do I think of Harrison? Because this is an election year that centers on money.

It is cynical to think that money is all that matters in American politics. But it is daft to think that money does not matter. It tempts incredulity to think that the more money in an election, the freer the speech and the more open the debate.

But following the money is always a good idea. It is best to pay attention when patterns of political spending shift. They have shifted in 2014, with vast amounts of money oozing into what would otherwise seem unlikely contests — judicial elections in North Carolina, state senate elections in Washington — as well as the more predictable contests for national office.

mar -- harrison portrait

I think of Harrison and 1888 because money sharply shifted that year. The gradual expansion of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act had choked off the usual sources of campaign finance: kickbacks, contributions and unpaid service from officeholders who owed their positions to the party. The Republicans — Harrison’s party — needed new sources of cash.

GOP candidates were running on the protective tariff, so they turned to people who would benefit from higher tariff rates. One Republican official called on the party to “put the manufacturers of Pennsylvania under the fire and fry all the fat out of them.” And they did.

By today’s standards, the GOP obtained chump change. But it mattered when so many states were closely divided. Harrison carried New York by 14,373 votes (1.1 percent of those cast) and Indiana by 2,376 votes. His opponent Democrat Grover Cleveland’s margin in Connecticut was only 336 votes.

What seems so innocent now is that the parties directly squeezed the donors and remained in control. Some of the money bought organizers and publicity; some bought votes. Accusations of fraud were rampant.

That the majority of voters cast their ballots from strong party loyalty, that most of those paid for their votes supported men whom they would have voted for anyway, and that there may have been less fraud than usual in states like New York does not settle the issue when the elections in New York and Indiana were so close.

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Money definitely made the difference. Harrison attributed his victory to “Providence.” The Republican boss, Senator Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania, responded that Harrison “ought to know that Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it.” Harrison would “never know how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president.”

But the parties had started a political arms race they could not control. The wealthy had sought influence through lobbyists and controlling officials once elected, but now their money was electing officials. Money always demanded more money to counter it and encouraged other abuses as a firewall against lack of funds.

Gerrymandering, the suppression of black votes and restrictions that increasingly barred immigrants and poor people from the polls were not new, but they escalated after 1888. The result was not stability. The Republicans who had captured the House, Senate and presidency in 1888 suffered one of the worst electoral setbacks in U.S. history in 1890. Elections would swing violently from one party to another until 1896.

Americans were losing faith in the fairness of both the economy and of the political process. The two were connected. Those with money, found the avenues of influence open.

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By 1892, the U.S. political system seemed in free fall. Like today, the country faced wrenching change. But it was burdened with a political class utterly incapable of dealing with what seemed an endless series of crises and misfortunes, a declining standard of living for most Americans and vast inequalities.

In 1888, the camel’s nose was just entering the tent. By the early 20th century, the whole beast was in view. The danger was that the rich would dominate the parties, and then — and now — the dangers were both apparent and potentially easy to correct.

In 1930, Charles Beard wrote his American Leviathan and suggested the United States “fix limits to all expenditures, define the purposes for which they may be made, place full responsibility for disbursement on candidates and committees, and abolish exemptions in accounting for campaign outlays.”

There should be a federal elections commission, Beard wrote, with investigatory powers and the authority to deal quickly with contested cases. He thought the ultimate solution was to eliminate private money in primaries and elections entirely.

It remains not only the road not taken, but also the road closed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

ILLUSTRATION (TOP): Matt Mahurin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Benjamin Harrison, official White House portrait by Eastman Johnson. Wikipedia/Comons

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Senator Mathew S. Quay of Pennsylvania. Wikipedia/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 3): David Koch and his brother, Charles Koch. REUTERS/Courtesy of Koch Industries.

 

2 comments

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Under Republican Chief Justice John Roberts leadership, the Republican controlled United States Supreme Court through recent court rulings has opened the floodgates of money into our political process.

Because of the Supreme court rulings the multi-billionaires, the billionaires and the multi-millionaires can now spend unlimited amounts of money and do so anonymously to promote their political agendas, elect their candidates to office and to influence the political process.

Posted by GetToTheTruth | Report as abusive

Anyone’s individual wealth when used to manipulate politicians to thwart the will of the people is a bad thing. The problem for the GOP is that even when their shills use the word libtards, the liberals will still be for limiting spending by all. Not just the Koch brothers, but everyone.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive