Giving thanks for the worst government money can buy

Capitol expenditures

Nov 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

We're celebrating Thanksgiving this week, a holiday to honor that long-ago feast back in 1621, when a bunch of local Native Americans sat down to eat with a few dozen English religious nuts, otherwise known as Pilgrims.

Old Squanto, a native who had spent some time in England and learned the lingo, interpreted. Folks swapped turkeys and cornmeal, and a good time seems to have been had by all. Well, or so we think.

The Injuns didn't write their impressions down. We do know at that point it would have been relatively easy for them to have clubbed all the colonists over the head, in which case we might never have heard of "relentless positive action."

Fifty-five years later, the natives had their "aha!" moment and launched a multi-pronged attack, which the whites chauvinistically called "King Philip's War," though there was no King, or anybody remotely involved named Philip.

The natives did as well as they could, slaughtering a few hundred interlopers, but alas, it was too late in the game. Epidemics had vastly reduced their numbers, and the white eyes had increased.

In the end, thousands of Native Americans died. When it was over, the future was pretty much assured. The tribes were well on their way to being virtually wiped out as a people and a culture, except for whatever small remnant might be needed to put on fundraising powwows at suburban shopping centers someday.

You do have to wonder if Metacom, the now-forgotten "King Philip's War" leader's real name, ever cursed Old Squanto's memory in the last days of that war, before the squatters chopped off Met's head and stuck it on a pole. Anyway, I know that's probably not the version of Thanksgiving you learned in school.

But then reality is seldom what it seems, isn't it? I was thinking about that the other day, contemplating our mostly broken political and media system. The other day, I did a public forum with Rick Kaplan, one of the most high-powered television producers in the nation. He's produced everything and everyone from Walter Cronkite to the current HBO drama The Newsroom, and helped invent modern election coverage. When I asked him if he thought our politics and government and news media were all broken, he shot me a glance like I was stupid.

"Well, yes," he said. "Of course they are."

When I asked what he thought of the way network television covered politics today, he said it was about as intelligent as "the guys who follow elephants around with big garbage cans" to pick up their shit. The networks put about as much foresight into covering campaigns, he said. They give us polls and pictures and spin.

Few engage in serious coverage of what the candidates really stand for, and whether they might have the ability to bring it off.

What they do give us are illustrated histories of the candidate's genitals and other minor sins. Ever slept with someone you don't want everyone in the world to know about?

Puffed your résumé just a bit? Been arrested for open booze in the car, picked up for pot, etc., etc.? Well, guess what.

Run for an office high enough to make a serious difference, and there's a good chance whatever you did will be trumpeted all over the media by enemy forces with money.

"I know lots of people who have been successful in business, in other walks of life who would make good governors, senators, vice presidents and presidents," Kaplan said. But they'll never run.

"They don't need the aggravation."

Even if you have no capacity for embarrassment (like, say, Bill Clinton), you can't even think about running for anything above village council these days unless you have access to millions in campaign funds. Take governor, for example. Any idea what being governor of Michigan pays? The salary is $159,300 — not bad for most of us, but nothing a successful salesman would find impressive.

How much do you suppose was spent trying to get Snyder and Schauer elected?

Brace yourself, Bertha: $47.6 million on TV advertising alone, enough money to pay the guv's salary for nearly 300 years. However, only about $11 million of that was spent by the Snyder and Schauer campaigns themselves.

The rest was spent by shadowy outside groups. Thanks to a law pushed through by new State Sen. Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, you have no right or ability to find out where that money came from.

Rich Robinson is one of my heroes; he spends his life toiling away for a small salary as the director of a nonpartisan, nonprofit outfit called the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

"The notion of campaign accountability in Michigan is a total sham," he said last week. "Transparency is inoculation against corruption. When there is no record of who is spending all those millions of dollars, there is no way to evaluate when considerations given to secret donors cross the line to the unethical or illegal."

Robinson spends his life digging out what figures he can, trying to give us the knowledge we need to take our nation back.

So we need to try to do that.

That is, unless you're completely satisfied with the way things are. With your job and career and how much money you make.

If you're satisfied with the roads and the schools where you live, with your local schools, with your future job prospects, then you can ignore everything I'm about to say. Likewise, if you have total faith in the 1 percent running things to eventually allow their profits to trickle down to you — well, then, don't worry about a damn thing.

Otherwise, there's a lot of work to do. The creatures running the legislature couldn't care less about you and your needs.

They care about those who bought them off. The Senate majority leader, as I have said, was the chief architect of the bill preventing you from knowing who's putting up millions to run commercials smearing candidates they don't like. He's Dick DeVos' man, just as new Congressman Mike Bishop is Matty Moroun's.

So how do we fix this?

What's needed is — at the very least — a state constitutional amendment requiring full transparency in campaign funding, plus another getting rid of term limits, a move that would take power away from the lobbyists and the special interests. Actually, a new Michigan constitutional convention would be the best way to go, though we won't get to vote on whether to have one for another dozen years.

Nationally, we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 that essentially said the government could put no limits on campaign spending by corporations or other special-interest groups. Failing that, we could try to get the Federal Communications Commission to restrict unlimited campaign spending on the airwaves.

Doing any of these things would take time and be very hard, but probably not as hard as, say, the civil rights movement. That movement was about gaining citizens their rights; this one would be about restoring them.

People in this state managed to get not one, but two anti-wolf-hunting referendums on this year's ballot. I support wolves myself, and am against hunting them for sport. But we're talking about saving a few dozen animals here.

Don't you think saving democracy might be as important? Personally, I'm a little tired of giving thanks every year for what is becoming the worst government money can buy.