Corruption in government yields Stilted Age

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Mike McCabe
July 14, 2010

Fear is an unflattering garment, but we still wear it every time much is unknown about what lies ahead for us. We live in such a time.

Producing even more anxiety is the lack of control we as citizens have over the ship of state. It’s hard not to notice how lawmakers put the demands of wealthy interests ahead of the needs of the general public, causing a great many people to lose faith that their elected representatives are actually representing them.

There’s good reason to feel this way. Wisconsin legislators get $2 of every $3 they raise for their election campaigns from people who cannot vote for them because they live outside their districts.

To put an even finer point on where state lawmakers get the money to fuel their campaigns, more than three-quarters of the money raised by legislators in 2009 came from a pool of donors who amount to less than 1 percent of the state’s population.

To find a period in American history with a concentration of power, corporate influence and political corruption comparable to today’s, you have to go back to the late 1800s. There was Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. There were the robber barons. That’s what they called the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Mark Hanna, the Cleveland industrialist and politician who befriended Rockefeller at a young age, famously said: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” to describe that corrupt era.

It’s odd how our nation’s highest court now says corporations are people, yet today’s captains of industry have never been more faceless and the companies they run have never been more inanimate. Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt became household names in the Gilded Age. Who can name the current CEO of Exxon Mobil or Goldman Sachs or AIG? Which top BP exec was that who talked of caring about the “small people” whose lives are being ruined by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

No doubt remains that we are reliving the Gilded Age. The only question is what historians will finally call this latest era of rampant materialism and blatant corruption. Maybe ours should be called the Stilted Age. The name fits a time when a comfortable few rest easily above the floodwaters while an afflicted many watch jobs and homes and savings and ways of life wash away. Or the Jaded Age, so named for a society overindulged, exhausted by overwork, dulled by excess. So named for a time when truth competes so poorly in the marketplace of ideas, when opinion is exalted over fact, when ugly propaganda becomes innocuous “spin.”

Light will appear one day at the end of the tunnel. But knowing that is small comfort when you’re feeling around in the dark. History is scariest when it is being made.

Mike McCabe is director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state politics and works for clean, open and honest government. The group’s website is www.wisdc.org. Readers can reach McCabe by e-mail at mccabe@wisdc.org.

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