Is our democracy broken beyond repair? 

The bottom line: Congress is totally corrupt.

Here’s a serious, sober question:

Is our democracy broken beyond repair? When we look at what’s happening in both Lansing and Washington, does it indicate that representative government is hopelessly corrupt?

I never thought so before. 

I’ve seen Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson rise and fall; seen corrupt legislators, drunken ones, stupid ones.

Good governors; bad governors; weak governors. Members of Congress who were statesmen; members who mostly held down their chairs, members who were senile.

Somehow, the system usually righted itself. But I’m not sure it can do so anymore. That’s not because I’m a crabby old baby boomer, but because of a number of bad court decisions and poor choices made by our amendment-happy voters.

But really, does that matter? 

Not to most people, who are consumed with going to work, going to school, trying to get sex, trying to get the kids an education. Most barely know who their representatives are.

Nobody knows they have pancreatic cancer, either, until it’s usually too late to do anything except get ready to die.

Case in point: I spent some time last week talking with one of the more promising and serious candidates for Congress in Michigan this year. Highly educated and experienced, he has local roots and national, even global experience, and decided to make a run for office. He’s running hard …

But when I met with him, he was frankly rattled by two things: the amount of money required to even compete, and the amount of time candidates and even incumbent members of Congress have to spend raising money.

“Members of Congress are paid, what — $174,000 a year?” he said. Know what it costs to be elected to a piddly two-year term? Last March, Democrats spent $5 million trying to get a woman named Alex Sink to win a special election in Florida.

This was for a job that would last 10 months. And she lost, in part, because Republicans spent at least as much. (Sink at least still has her sanity; when asked if she wanted to run again for a full two-year-term in November, she said no way.)  

The man I talked to may not have to spend that much, but knows he will need millions. Even if he gets them, there’s no guarantee he can win. But if he should win, no matter what he does in office, the other party will spend millions in two years to try to knock him off. My candidate knows this.

“That’s a good question,” he said, when I asked how many election cycles he’d be willing to endure, begging for massive amounts of money all along the way.

He also knows that if polls show he has a chance to win, his party’s national machine will swoop in with massive funds — but at a price. They’ll frame the campaign and shape the message according to their agenda, not that of the candidate’s.

Incidentally, you may have noticed I haven’t used the candidate’s name. That’s because he fears that if he went on the record saying these things everyone knows, it would anger his national political party, which might cut him off.

How’s that for being controlled by the machine?

Marcy Kaptur is one member of Congress who’s not afraid to speak the truth. The longest-serving woman currently in the House, she’s represented Toledo since she defeated an incumbent Republican in 1982. She’s honest, dedicated, and smart. Single, married to her job, she still lives in the home in which she grew up. Her voters re-elect her by landslides.

But Kaptur doesn’t lead a major committee, and told me a year or so ago she probably never will. “They told me I don’t raise enough money here to send to the D-Triple-C,” meaning the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Toledo is not a wealthy area,” she said. She can’t, and won’t, squeeze hard-pressed factory and warehouse workers to give and give. But she believes she’s being penalized for it.

The bottom line: Congress is totally corrupt.

That doesn’t necessarily mean dishonest; it means corrupt. Any system where you need millions of dollars to win a job that pays a tiny fraction of that as salary is horribly broken.

News flash: Here’s something the street hookers know, that certain judges, columnists, and political analysts don’t or at least pretend not to. People who give you money want something for it, and someone always gets screwed.

Money has always been part of politics, of course. But within the last five years, two things have happened to seal in the corruption: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January 2010, in a case called Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, that we can’t limit what corporations spend to influence our elections, because corporations are, legally, “persons.” 

And spending vast sums to sway opinion is “free speech” protected by the First Amendment.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Michigan’s Legislature intervened last year to make sure you can’t even find out who’s spending most of the money used to brainwash you.

This so-called “dark money,” dispensed by shadowy committees, already dominates spending in judicial campaigns, and is growing rapidly in other contests.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnston last year wanted to require full disclosure of who was giving what to whom, which is only fair. After all, even slaves were entitled to know who their owners were. But that did not suit many big corporations, including Amway’s Dick DeVos. And Amway has its man in the legislature, State Senator Arlan Meekhof.

Meekhof, a particularly odious anti-labor, anti-choice, community-college dropout, drafted a bill allowing campaign spending to be kept totally secret from the citizens.

Republicans, who have large legislative majorities, rammed it through both houses, and Gov. Rick Snyder, the man who ran for governor promising transparency and openness in government operations, happily signed it.

So we are screwed.

Now what are we going to do about it?

Well, we have several choices: We can go on ignoring politics, chomp our fast food, and watch Orange Is the New Black until we lose our bad jobs and the TV disappears.

We can then hope for an eventual bloody revolution …

Or we can try to educate ourselves and others into doing something about this. Yes, we need a U.S Constitutional amendment to prevent money from hijacking our elections. 

Difficult that would be indeed, as Yoda would say. But not impossible. The Constitution exists to be amended.

Yes, that could take years. But in the meantime, there’s something else that can and should be done. 

The Federal Communications Commission has the power to regulate what can be broadcast on the airwaves, which are public property, just like the national parks.

The millions corporations give to campaigns is mainly used to flood the airwaves with commercials. Everyone can come up with the cash for bumper stickers and yard signs.

The FCC could go a long way to circumvent the buying of our government by setting severe limits on campaign commercials. They have the power to do that. Yes, the Outraged Right will try to pass laws and file cases to stop them.

But this would buy us some time. When the founding fathers finished writing the Constitution, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government they’d given us.

“A [democratic] republic, madam — if you can keep it,” he supposedly said. Well, now we have to work to keep it.

That might be a struggle worth making, unless you want to work for minimum wage forever. 

More by Jack Lessenberry

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