This election season has been, if nothing else, interesting, particularly for those (like me) who believed that money was fast becoming the sole determinant to political success. This election season will probably go down in history as the season of the outsider. Both Trump and Sanders have defied all odds and are definitely tapping into a populist nerve that this country has not seen for a long time.
The debates on both sides have been contentious. The recent Democratic debate in New Hampshire was particularly impressive. Both candidates had a chance to speak to their issues and challenge the other’s as well. One of the most contentious exchanges involved whether Secretary Clinton’s acceptance of “donations” had any influence on her decision-making. To quote directly from a patently irate Secretary Clinton: “You will not find that I have ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation…Name one time that I changed due to Wall Street money.”
Senators Sanders did not directly respond, but fell back to his default position that money is a corrupting influence on democracy. Was this the best answer? No, but anything more would have required a deeper appreciation as to why he was correct.
Our political processes work for those in power because there is little need for a blatant quid pro quo exchange of money for political favors. Instead, political decisions are made based upon alignment of perceived self and public interest. Secretary Clinton is likely telling the truth when she claims never to have changed a vote because of money received. However, except in cases of desperation or excessive greed, there is simply no need to “buy” any politician’s position.
Noam Chomsky posits that gaining access to positions of power requires one to pass through “various gates and filters.” These act as eligibility criteria for accessing power. And the process is reinforced through all of those who influence public opinion – those intellectuals and purveyors of opinion who serve as intellectual and cultural managers, as Chomsky describes them. These managers provide all the rationale required to make decisions favorable to the elite, actual public benefit notwithstanding.
Following the debate, Senator Sanders has been chided for taking quixotic policy positions and being a “single issue” candidate. But once we accept “mature” or “responsible” or “grown-up” positions as the correct ones, we already have likely rationalized our actions and political points of view. “I am not for sale” is certainly a statement that Secretary Clinton can rely upon, notwithstanding former Goldman Sachs partner Peter Kiernan’s more crass description of acceptance of speaking fees as “Hillary’s Goldman handcuffs.” But declaring that one is not for sale is essentially little more than a platitude. For most politicians, their public persona adopts a rationale that views collateral personal benefit as incidental, deserved and even proof that the public good is being served. At that point, our personal desires (for money, fame, access, success, notoriety) have overcome reason. Or, as David Hume famously stated, reason becomes the slave to passion – we do what we want to do and then we rationalize our actions in order to defend them. Reason becomes compromised and we conflate personal and public interest. This was certainly evident in Secretary Clinton’s response to why she accepted $675,000 for three speaking engagements with Goldman Sachs. Her response of, “I don’t know. That is what they offered,” strongly suggests that earning what probably amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an hour or more of work was simply paying her what she deserved; concurrently, she very likely believed that what she was doing was in the best interest of the public, and she most likely praised Goldman Sachs for doing the same.
So is it any wonder that Senator Sanders chose not to directly take on Secretary Clinton’s challenge?