How do you confront the culture of political bet-hedging in D.C.? Make it costly to sell out.
Yesterday on ND20, my colleague Matt Stoller pointed out an aspect of the sad tale of money and politics in America. Matt tells the story of Doug Thornell, a former communications staffer for Rep. Chris Van Hollen who went from standing up to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to pushing for a corporate tax holiday when he went to work as a spokesman for the Win America Campaign, a lobbying coalition for corporate interests stuffed to the gills with former government employees.
Sometimes, well-meaning, hard-working politicians and staffers who come to Washington ready to do right by their principles and their constituents find themselves caught up in a system that rewards bet-hedging and money-chasing. They realize that there’s no job guarantee in D.C, and that close calls are more common than defeats. So they make sure not to anger too many of those with money and power. And, as Matt points out, like traders their thinking becomes short-term, not long-term. They know that while the D.C. job may not always be there, Big Business will be. For a Democrat, the number of liberal-leaning think tanks and non-profits is paltry, and if you’re not a lawyer, you might be hard-pressed figuring out how to earn a living if your candidate loses.
Other times, a bright, ambitious guy like Doug Thornell decides not to wait around to see what might happen in the next election. He sees an opportunity and packs up his bags to serve the interests of the corporations he and his public servant boss once took on.
I have a hard time letting the Thornells of the world off the hook. Sometimes you have to decide whether you’re going to be part of the problem or the solution. My father, a liberal history professor in North Carolina, was persecuted and punished for years because he supported civil rights. He did not back down. And he paid a price. Literally. His salary was frozen for decades as a punitive measure by his college’s racist administration. It sucked for him, and it sucked for our family. But I got to see first-hand what integrity looks like — doing what you know is right even at cost to yourself.
It would help if once again there were a real stigma attached to saying you’re on the people’s side and then selling out and jumping on the corporate money train. John Ashcroft, former United States Attorney General, went to start his own K-Street lobbying shop for tech titans after leaving office. That is morally repellent. It compromises our democracy. It erodes the American way of life.
Remember, cultural shifts in the past have turned those we admired into those we rejected. Witness the 1920s robber barons who became pariahs after FDR took them on. Most famously, JP Morgan, Jr. went from being one of America’s most admired bankers to fleeing the country once the tide of public opinion turned against the avatars of greed.
If you peruse Thornell’s Twitter account, you might think that he’s an upstanding guy, tweeting on about the moral decrepitude of David Vitter and Anthony Weiner’s lack of ‘personal credibility.’ Very nice. What you will not see: calling out Big Business for trying to break the backs of America’s middle class and working people while they enjoy unprecedented profits. Here’s the rub: you can’t simultaneously push the agendas of companies shifting profits and earnings overseas to avoid paying taxes and stand for the interests of American citizens. It doesn’t wash.
Of course, the underlying problem here is one of inequality — the huge gulf between what a large, private corporation can pay v. everyone else. A public interest organization is never going to pay what a Big Bank or Big Pharma can dole out. We have to somehow constrain the overwhelming flow of cash into these firms by addressing executive compensation, tax policies, and so on, if anything is going to change. I’ll grant you this seems unlikely given the fact that the money train has so corrupted Washington. And given the fact that bright young men like Thornell start running when they hear that train a-comin’.
Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, co-founder of Recessionwire, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.
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