What Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempted is about as destructive to democracy as it gets. And yet, selling a Senate seat is not as uncommon as we'd like to think. In fact, the corrupt practice happens with such regularity that our system of government has a special term for it. It's called an "election."
Elections sell Senate seats to the highest bidder -- on the open market, fair and square. Blagojevich's blunder was that he tried to sell a seat behind closed doors, exposing himself as a pariah who does not even believe in the most basic element of our democratic system: the free market. There's nothing wrong with selling a Senate seat when done properly, with the right permits. But Blagojevich's selling out our democratic principles veered into dangerous, intolerable territory: protectionism.
Is it really fair to say our Senate seats are "bought"? In nine out of 10 contests, the candidate willing to spend the most for the prize gets to keep it (Center for Responsive Politics). This is even more egregious when the candidate offers voters little besides a sizable wallet. For Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, Mark Dayton's and Herb Kohl's primary and general elections come quickly to mind. Rich, self-financing candidates often claim they can't be bought. It's a bizarre admission of money's corrupting influence on our elections, and an even stranger solution to it. What they are saying is: "You don't have to worry about money distorting the democratic process on my watch, since I paid for my Senate seat in cash!"
There are those who say the problem with our elections is not too much money, but not nearly enough. In the past, it was fashionable to point out that Americans spend more per capita on yogurt than on their elections (Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Cato Institute and others). In more recent years, potato chips have replaced yogurt as the analogy of choice (George Will). This line of thinking assumes democracy is a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is the same mistake, of course, that Blagojevich made.
When one spends more money on potato chips, one generally gets more potato chips. The Senate-seats-are-being-sold-below-market-value argument infers that when one spends more money on elections, one gets more democracy. But the only similarity in spending on potato chips and on elections is that we end up with more cleverly packaged oil and grease with no redeeming nutritional value. Spending more money on potato chips funds more potato chip making. Spending more money on elections funds more consultants, more lobbyists, more 30-second commercials, not more health care reform. If democracy was a commodity that could be purchased from a drive-through window, we'd have a lot more of it. It is not a commodity that can be put on plastic, it is a process that demands our constant participation.
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Of course, part of the reason our system of democracy features the legal selling of Senate seats is that the Supreme Court has determined that money equals speech. Bribing Sen. Windsock is a form of legal free speech, as long as any promises are registered as mere winks and nods and are not caught on tape like an Illinois governor. But if fundraising is constitutionally protected free speech, donating money to Krazy Khalid's Suicide Bombing Training Hut and Outreach Center is no different than writing a letter to the editor extolling the virtues of the Outreach Center's violent extremism. When consumer purchases are regarded as protected free speech, purchasing a senator is just another way of saying, "I drive a Bentley!"
Elections entail a lot of "free speech" in thousand-dollar denominations about offshore tax shelters, environmental deregulation and cheap labor for the speakers' companies. But is anyone really "buying" a seat? Is it fair to liken an election to an auction? In an auction, people pay attention to who continuously raises the bid. Why? Well, that would be a strong indicator of who's poised to win, wouldn't it? In an election, the media pay attention to who continuously raises more money, at least as much attention as to poll numbers of likely voters. Why? Well, that would be a strong indicator of who's poised to win, wouldn't it?
There is a right way and a wrong way to buy and sell a U.S. Senate seat. Our republic can ill afford the creeping protectionism of a Blagojevich selling the levers of democracy to a handful of friends in a dark room, where the open market is not free to bid. Let us drag that auction into the bright sunshine, where all plutocrats, not simply those friendly with a governor, but all powerful, moneyed interests -- "They, The People" -- have a right to bid on a U.S. Senate seat, or buy shares, as equals under law. The alternative would be to not buy and sell Senate seats at all, instead somehow trusting citizens to choose their own representatives, relatively free of the guiding hand of money. Of course, that would smack of socialism.
Kirk Anderson is a political cartoonist and satirist whose new book, "Banana Republic: Adventures in Amnesia," features a fictional Third World backwater that sells its Senate seats on the open market and bails out its corporations. He's scheduled to give a talk and sign books at 7 p.m. Thursday at True Colors (formerly Amazon Bookstore) in Minneapolis and at 6 p.m. Saturday at Arise Books in Minneapolis. "Banana Republic" first appeared on the opinion pages of the Star Tribune.