This essay was published by WBUR Cognoscenti, on March 26, 2014. http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2014/03/26/elizabeth-warren-jeanne-shaheen-scott-brown-paul-e-fallon
The buzz about Scott Brown running for the U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire struck closer when an email from Elizabeth Warren showed up in my inbox. Her missive applauded raising over $40,000 in one weekend to support Jeanne Shaheen, decried Karl Rove’s intention to spend $600,000 against her, and asked us to fight back by donating more money to Shaheen’s cause.
I moved the email to Trash. But the following morning Senator Warren’s message festered in my mind until I puzzled out the paradox of her request. If I donate money to Senator Shaheen in order to chip away Super PAC clout, I participate in the game that big money determines election outcomes. If I don’t contribute my two cents, I abdicate my ability to influence. Neither position is palatable to a person who believes votes should not be equated with dollars.
Whenever I am confounded by the discrepancies between true democracy and the political realities of these United States, I turn to my Founding Father of choice, John Adams, for perspective. After serving eight years as Vice-President to the universally loved George Washington, John Adams became the reluctant participant in our nation’s first politicized election. Mr. Adams believed he’d earned the Office of the Presidency, but Thomas Jefferson mounted an opposing campaign. Although Mr. Adams recognized democracy’s frailty (“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.”), he was dismayed by the trivial issues and grotesque hucksterism that marked the election of 1796. This lover of democracy, in theory, didn’t anticipate the chaos of free elections. Adams prevailed; he served one term, and then lost to Jefferson in 1800. John Adams remained publicly optimistic about our country, if not about Mr. Jefferson, although in the closing year of his life, Mr. Adams acknowledged, “Our American Chivalry is the worst in the world. It has no Laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be all a Caprice.”
Two hundred eighteen years later, nothing has changed and everything has changed. Our democracy has endured, though our government is far from true democracy. The right to vote is broader, than it was in Adam’s time, though still imperfect, while an individual’s voice is harder to be heard. And our elections are more capricious than ever. Political parties and political bosses have lost clout. Money is king of politics, just as it is in all avenues of America life. Debate has been coopted by grandstanding; the most audacious proclamations command the largest audience share.
As a result, our political debate is defined by the minority who – uninhibited by the actual need to govern – can stake the most outlandish positions; and single interests who stand to gain from particular policies. There is no place for reasoned discussion, no benefit in compromise, no forum for the voice of balance or reason.
Which brings me back to the paradox of Senator Warren’s email. Do I heed her call to battle against Karl Rove’s Super PAC, or do I keep my wallet in my pocket in the naive belief that elections should be determined by the will of the people rather than the power of the purse. Neither option is palatable. I wish to have a voice in my country’s affairs, but I want that voice to spring from an informed intellectual contribution, not a financial one. Ultimately, I return to John Adams to guide my actions, and found solace in his son, John Quincy Adams. “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”
Sorry, Senator Warren, I refuse to try to beat the likes of Karl Rove by playing at his game. Let’s create a different, truly representative, game instead.