Politics in America: Only the rich need apply

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Swilling the planters with bumbo" was what it was once called - the Colonial American tradition of treating voters with gifts during election campaigns, particularly plying them with rum (including a concoction known as bumbo). Virtually everyone who could afford the practice did it, including George Washington, who served 160 gallons of rum to 400 voters during the 1758 campaign for the Virginia House of Burgesses. Needless to say, this was a prohibitively expensive way to campaign, and it meant that politics was largely the preserve of the rich.

I was reminded of this phrase when a recent Center for Responsive Politics study of 2009 data found that 261 of the 535 members of Congress were millionaires (this probably understates the actual number because members of Congress aren't required to report their homes as assets). When looking at both houses together, the legislators weighed in with a hefty median income of $911,000. For the Senate alone, median income was an astounding $2.38 million. This is not too shabby when the median household income in America is roughly $50,000.

In other words, politics has increasingly been turned over to the wealthy.

We have even returned to the practice of "swilling the planters with bumbo." Although election laws prevent the crude bribery of Colonial times, Americans appear perfectly comfortable with people spending their personal fortunes to buy - if they can - their way to election. Meg Whitman spent more than $160 million - $140 million-plus of which was her own money - in a failed effort to seize the governorship of California, or roughly $50 per vote. Rick Scott lavished more than $70 million of his and his family's fortune to snare the job as Florida's governor. Both campaigns seem like a relative bargain compared with Michael Bloomberg, who spent $102 million to win a third term as mayor of New York, or roughly $174 per vote.

This is not simply a local or state phenomenon. Mitt Romney spent more than $40 million in his losing bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had a well-established fundraising machine, lent $13.2 million to her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Although many self-financed candidates end up losing, they scare off competitors of more modest means.

This unfortunate trend of the wealthy monopolizing higher office shows no sign of slowing. Election financing laws continue to erode, and income disparities seem likely to grow for the foreseeable future.

John Adams railed against this development more than two centuries ago. At the time, the prevailing view was that government positions should pay little, if any, salary so that only men with virtuous intentions would fill them. But Adams pointed out that this so-called solution did not ensure the election of virtuous men, only the election of rich men. Simply paying a reasonable salary, he argued, was "one of the best securities of liberty and equality."

Adams' great fear was that we would have what he called "an aristocratic despotism": the possibility of "the rich, the well born and the able acquir(ing) an influence among the people that will soon be too much for simple honesty and plain sense." In typical fashion, his judgment of that aristocracy was unstinting in its harshness. He wrote of "the weakness, the folly, the pride, the vanity, the selfishness, the artifice, the unbounded ambition, the unfeeling cruelty of a majority of those (in all nations) who are allowed an aristocratical influence."

Over time, most Americans came to agree with Adams, and that is why public office now comes with a regular salary, health benefits and all those other attributes we associate with most jobs (ironically, those benefits are becoming increasingly rare for nongovernment employees).

With the modern return of the practice of "swilling the planters with bumbo," though, we now find ourselves in a new age of aristocratic despotism. You need only study income distribution over the last quarter of a century to see that the nation's policies have been slanted overwhelmingly in favor of the rich. Between 1979 and 2004, the after-tax income for the top 1% skyrocketed 176%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. How did the bottom fifth do? They squeezed out a measly 6% gain.

Adams probably never imagined that electioneering would grow into the unwieldy beast that it now is, in which even local and statewide races gobble up tens of millions of dollars. It is no wonder that political offices are sliding ever more firmly into the hands of the wealthy. Adams would undoubtedly survey the scene and find it as full of weakness, folly and selfishness as it was in his own day.

As he warned back then, you get the politics you pay for.

• Andrew Trees is the author of "The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.



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