Monday, August 20, 2012

Wisconsin's Enemy Within

First you are surprised. Then you get mad. Then you shrug. Then you are numb.

I was reminded of the path so many follow in their thinking about money in politics and corruption in government when I received an email the end of last week from someone wishing me "good luck in getting into the 'subterranean,' the 'tentacles of corrupt money' that infiltrate our elections.... We just have to try living with some things, no matter how badly they stink. Wish we could fix some of this, but money talks."

Wisconsin used to be known from coast to coast for squeaky clean politics and open, honest government. That reputation was the byproduct of stratospherically high ethical standards. Our state was in the vanguard of the war on corruption when bribery was banned here in 1897, and Wisconsin blazed another new trail when corporate electioneering was prohibited in 1905. Standards were further raised with the enactment of the Corrupt Practices Act in 1911. Primary elections were pioneered here, opening up the process of nominating candidates for public office, turning over to voters a task previously performed by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms.

The 1970s brought new waves of ethics and campaign finance reform, most notably the establishment of a comprehensive ethics code that included the nation's strictest gift ban prohibiting lobbyists from giving "anything of value" to state officials. That same decade Wisconsin became one of the first states to start publicly financing election campaigns.

In 1978 Wisconsin's high standards were on prominent display when a state senator named Henry Dorman was criminally charged for an intolerable ethical breach. The charges were eventually dismissed, but not until after voters threw him out of office and ended his political career. His crime? Charging a few personal calls to a state telephone credit card.

Looking back, we probably should have known in 1976 that the days of high ethical standards in Wisconsin politics were numbered unless we took fairly drastic actions. That's the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Buckley v. Valeo that money is speech. At the time, Bill Proxmire was spending $150 or $200 on his statewide campaigns for office and Wisconsin voters were repeatedly sending him back to Washington to represent us in the U.S. Senate. No one could yet imagine that in our lifetimes we would see over $80 million spent electing a governor.

The way the money game in politics evolved in the next several decades has made a mockery of our ethics code. The gift ban's definition of "anything of value" does not cover the thing of greatest value to today's politicians – campaign contributions. In 1973 when the law was enacted and Bill Proxmire embodied Wisconsin politics, that probably didn't seem like much of an oversight. Today, in the age of Citizens United and Super PACs and Scott Walker, that omission renders the law meaningless. The gift ban isn't worth the paper it's written on.

This past year has been a rough one for high ethical standards in Wisconsin politics. Just about every fundraising and spending record, broken. Smear campaigning, everywhere. Public financing, repealed. Public faith in the system, bottomed out. One blow after another to the body of democracy.

But the biggest blow of all to the Wisconsin way is the state of mind of most of our citizens when it comes to the political landscape. Most of us are not surprised anymore. Most of us are not mad, at least not enough to act on our anger. Most of us just shrug. Most of us are numb.

I had the honor of talking with a delegation of Argentine municipal officials when they visited our state last week. They were here thanks to an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I have no doubt I learned more from our meeting than they did. For my part, however, I pulled no punches in assessing the condition of American democracy, and openly condemned both government policy and the behavior of elected officials. Several of the Argentine guests told the translators they were surprised our government had allowed them to meet with me considering how critical I was of the American system.

Their observation made an impression on me. The best thing about America's system is that we've always expected it to be the best in the world. And we have had the freedom to speak up about what is wrong with it. Democracy is not dead so long as we remain free and willing to do so. But democracy won't be as strong as it can and should be unless the expectations we have and the standards those expectations lead us to set are sky high.

Democracy in our land faces greater threats than any seen in our lifetimes. We have our work cut out for us as citizens. There are a great many corrupt behaviors and practices that need to be stopped. The first is our own indifference.

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