The forced resignation from Congress this week of Tom DeLay, the former majority leader, of the Republicans, in the House of Representatives, attracted what could be called only "dutiful" notice in the Canadian media. His departure got reported all right, because he's a political biggie. But the accounts were bland and brief.
This is understandable. Despite his power (he so intimidated his own Republicans he was known as "The Hammer") and despite the controversy he's now embroiled in an indictment for money-laundering campaign funds DeLay had no hold on the public's imagination.
He had no charisma, personal or intellectual, unlike Newt Gingrich, with whom he once worked closely and who remains a name although he's been out of politics for the better part of a decade. DeLay's round, moon face gets lost on TV screens.
Yet DeLay personifies and exemplifies one of the key political problems of our time.
This problem is whether the United States, at the same time as it is leading the global campaign for democracy, can itself be called a democracy any longer. If the United States is indeed no longer a democracy, other than in external rituals like elections and TV debates between candidates, then the global campaign for democracy is bound, sooner or later, to collapse under the weight of its own illogic.
To understand DeLay's contribution to this challenge, it's necessary to keep in mind some numbers.
First, there are now 36,000 registered lobbyists in and around the famous K Street in Washington. This is close to a four-fold increase since 1994 when DeLay, then Majority Whip, launched what he called the "K Street Project" to increase the number of pro-Republican lobbyists.
What lobbyists mostly do is trade campaign funds for legislative changes that benefit special interests, most often, although not exclusively, corporate ones.
According to the Washington-based Cato Institute, the cost of special interest clauses added, usually at the last minute, by members of Congress to quite unrelated bills topped $60 billion last year. (This month, last-minute changes to a Senate bill sharply cut back proposed reductions in allowable spending by lobbyists on Congress members).
What has happened is that a democracy has been turned into a dollar-ocracy, or into a lobby-ocracy.
Without dollars, immense amounts of them, winning elections in the U.S. is impossible. And winning elections is all that matters, not merely for the sake of personal ego and power no differently today than at any time in history than for the sake of defeating the other guy.
There is in U.S. politics these days and has been for some time, an insensate partisanship, a limitless polarization, a sheer unremitting hatred by Republicans of Democrats, and the reverse, equally. Those attitudes justify just about anything for the sake of winning.
DeLay's downfall he was indicted last September and later almost managed to convince Republicans to change the House rules to allow him to stay in office is part of an ever-widening fundraising scandal that makes our own recent sponsorship scandal look like chump change.
Two of DeLay's former top aides have been indicted on separate corruption charges. His former ally, famed super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, embezzlement and corruption.
Besides telling all of what he knows to prosecutors, or a fair bit of it at least, Abramoff is also now telling some of the truth to the press.
It was unreasonable, he said recently, to suppose that "all members of Congress live an ascetic, monklike social life. This is the system that we have. I didn't create the system." Abramoff then added, "Eventually, money wins in politics."
True, surely, in the U.S. But how to explain that to the Russians and the Chinese, and to the Iraqis and the Palestinians?
Richard Gwyn's column appears Tuesdays and Fridays.
© 2006 The Toronto Star