- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Between 1850 and 1900, nearly every large city - and some states - in the United States came under the absolute control of po- litical machines, in which “the boss” and his henchmen all but eliminated competition from elections for public office. In New York City, for example, newspapers estimated that the Tweed Ring, named for its boss, William M. Tweed, stole more than $500 million of the taxpayers’ money. This same pattern was replicated nearly everywhere.

The problem of machine politics and political bosses was created by the rapid growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution, when that growth demanded increases in all kinds of public services and created a pool of public-employee labor that could be used in politics to control voting, registration and the loyalty of immigrants, to whom the machine often dispensed services and favors. Basically, political bosses learned how to use the most powerful resource of the politics of the day - government laborers - to seize unchallenged control over governments, through which they could rob the taxpayers with impunity. Corruption was rampant; graft was the rule of day, and the politicians got rich from labor and from taxes on the middle class.

The problem became so severe that it produced the Progressive Revolt, which swept across America to slay the beast of corrupt political machines. The Progressive movement was composed of a diverse group of strange bedfellows - outraged journalists who often provided the ammunition; businessmen who were tired of paying monopoly prices for the services they required; religious leaders who recognized the fundamental immorality of the practices of the machines; and the growing middle class, which was being taxed to pay for the outrageous, ill-gotten incomes of the bosses. It was a peculiar coalition of what today would be called liberals and conservatives banding together to preserve the democracy that was taken from them. When the movement started, no one would have believed it could succeed on the scale that it did. The movement took the enormous moral courage of many people, some of whom were ruined and some of whom were murdered, to restore the democracy that we enjoy today in our cities.

We are faced with a new problem, with a different origin, but with the same corrupting influence over our politics. This time, it is occurring with the same impunity at the state and national levels of government. The problem is caused by a political class, called incumbents (of both parties), who have converted the campaign process into a system of unparalleled political corruption whereby special interests support the incumbents in return for enormous benefits in terms of subsidies and other preferences. If I pay a member of Congress $100,000 for a political favor, the transaction is called bribery, and it is illegal. If I give a member of Congress $100,000 for his re-election campaign and he does me a favor afterward, that is perfectly legal, even though the voters know full well that it simply is bribery by another name.

Because the incumbents of both political parties steadfastly refuse to raise taxes to pay for their bribery, they have made it public policy to run up massive deficits and unfunded liabilities that are transferred to our children and grandchildren to pay. This is a form of taxation without representation that is without precedent in American history. Exactly such behavior was the basis for our own Revolution from England. Our children and grandchildren will be taxed excessively to pay for the benefits of current politicians of both parties, and they have no right to vote on their own impoverishment. How just and moral is that?

This situation is obvious to every American who cares to think seriously about it. If we want to protect our children and grandchildren, which is one of our greatest moral obligations as citizens and human beings, we have no alternative but to rise up and take control over the money transactions that are robbing us of our future. Money in the form of campaign contributions, paid propaganda campaigns and employment to retired legislators is the modern equivalent of the corrupt labor and patronage that destroyed the democracy of our cities 100 years ago. Because of the money, political choice no longer exists in the overwhelming majority of campaigns across the United States at the state and national levels where incumbents are involved. Americans of every political persuasion rightly are outraged, as they know politics as practiced today is the consummate insider’s game and a game that is rigged against individual taxpayers and their children regardless of their political loyalties.

However, the Supreme Court has just ruled that we cannot, under its incredibly narrow interpretation of the meaning of the Constitution, demand or expect our legislators to act to restrict the practices that are corrupting our system with money. That is precisely what the justices have said, and we all have heard them.

They have given this generation of Americans a singular choice. We have only one course of action left to us - amend the Constitution to eliminate all private money from political campaigns, giving government the constitutional right to regulate how money is used for political ends by everyone. The other choice is to do nothing, pretend we have other options and let special interests of every kind and description control every policy of our government, destroying our democratic rights and diminishing the future for our children and grandchildren.

This is the same profoundly moral choice that the Progressives made, and they answered the moral crisis to our benefit - they preserved our democratic rights, restored democracy to our cities, stopped the robbery of the public treasury and created cities that worked for all of the people. I wonder whether we - the “Me” Generation - have the moral courage to do the same thing. So far, with the single exception of Ross Perot and his movement, we have failed to answer the moral challenge confronting this generation. So the question is simply to those of you who understand this crisis: What are you going to do about it?

Gordon S. Black polled for Ross Perot in 1993-94 and co-authored “The Politics of American Discontent” (John Wiley & Sons, 1994). He is the retired founder of Harris Interactive, owner of the Harris Poll.

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