This week we discovered that President Trump used government funds in an effort to extort Ukraine’s leader, forcing him to drum up fake allegations against Joe Biden. When someone in our national security service balked, trying to report this act of treason, their whistleblower report was hidden on White House orders and they were punished for protecting their country. Sure, it’s bad, but in the Trump Era this is the kind of scandal we discover on days that end in “y.” We’ll forget it next week when we learn something even worse.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to fresh calls for impeachment with her usual schoolmarm exasperation. She sees impeachment as an immature, naïve diversion from the House’s crucial business of lawmaking. In a cynical dodge, she recommended that the House pass a law clarifying the President’s exposure to criminal prosecution and continue of its incoherent, crippled “investigations.”
Voters who sacrificed precious time and money to create the 2018 Blue Wave may be puzzled by Democratic leaders’ disinterest in Trump’s abuses. Those who have never before been engaged in Democratic politics and thought they were striking a blow against this regime seem particularly puzzled. Nothing we learned in high school civics prepared us for this strange ballet, as Democratic leaders invest more energy curbing their voters’ expectations than on challenging Republican plans.
Old-line Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer aren’t interested in impeaching Donald Trump because they are prospering under his leadership more than at any time in recent memory. They are sacrificing all the things they pretend to care about, from environmental protections to social justice measures, in order to reap a bonanza where it matters, in the money they bring home to their districts and their supporters. The last thing Nancy Pelosi wants to see is an enthusiastic national push for financial transparency in our politics. Democrats aren’t riding to the rescue, because their leaders see nothing that needs saving.
We are struggling to understand the dysfunction in our political system partly because of a mental glitch. Our minds try to convert the inputs around us into stories about villains and heroes. Politics rarely works that way.
Democratic representatives at all levels who found success over the past few decades were the ones who learned how to bring money back to their districts and to please the wealthy people who can connect them with private money-making opportunities. Rhetoric about racial equality, environmental protection, feminism, taxes or corporate accountability were the window-dressing used to motivate and distract voters.
A successful Democratic representative keeps the financial pipeline flowing to fund salaries for community organizers, block grants to fund their friends special projects, and maintain union employment on public infrastructure projects. Those who resist this imperative don’t last long, or slip to the margins, never exerting any real influence.
Republicans play a similar game in reverse. Successful Republican representatives at all levels learn how to help their key donors escape government oversight and taxes. They stir up voters with maudlin patriotism, religious nonsense, anti-abortion posturing, and increasingly blatant racism while doing everything necessary to keep their wealthy patrons happy.
We live in a system of Wu Tang Politics, in which Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.). However, the popular narrative assumes that Democrats somehow stand at opposition to this system. That myth rises from a distortion of Democratic financial interests. Just because wealthy people get marginally less from the Democratic Party doesn’t mean the party’s politics aren’t cash-driven.
One of Chuck Schumer’s largest and most reliable donors is Goldman Sachs. Tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump family fueled Schumer’s early career. Cory Booker leaned heavily on the Kushner family for his rise to power. Booker even attended Jared and Ivanka’s wedding. The Trumps have donated well over half a million to Democratic campaigns over the years, a figure that fails to account for the more lucrative, undisclosed political currency of connections to cushy private positions and access to insider deals.
Democrats’ strength in this system is the relative breadth of their financial base. Their money flows into numerically more hands, impacting more voters. Where Republicans are dependent on a narrow base of wealthy bigots who can’t make an impact at the polls, Democrats are channeling money into a broad spectrum of state, local and private organizations, tuned over the years to turn out voters and volunteers.
Leaders who consistently deliver the goods for the folks back home enjoy significant personal rewards. Family members get choice “jobs” on “charity” boards. Friendly contacts cultivated with developers and construction interests lead to helpful investment tips that yield fantastic rewards. Nancy and Paul Pelosi didn’t build a nine-figure fortune on blind luck or one-in-a-million talent. Nobody gives you a prized seat in a million-dollar deal for ending child hunger or halting police brutality. Democrats succeed in bringing money back home and fail to reform public schools, curb violence, or stop climate change because they are responding to the incentives built into the system.
Their weakness is that this Democratic financial pipeline can be held hostage by gridlock in Washington. Democrats refuse to challenge Republicans on crucial national issues because they can’t afford to risk their financial interests.
To seasoned, tenured Democrats, Trump’s America is an embarrassment of riches in the most literal sense. With Trump in charge, Republicans have adopted a ‘you get a car’ strategy that has successfully neutered Democratic opposition. I get a tax cut, she gets a giant increase in block grants. After decades of tight-fisted wrangling over money, Republicans are letting Democrats run wild while the debt explodes.
Why isn’t Nancy Pelosi fighting this President? Why on earth would she? For old-line Democrats, this is a once-in-a-lifetime feeding frenzy. You’re the only loser in this game.
There are no good guys and bad guys, there is only a single, unified fabric composed of incentives and punishments. If Marco Rubio owed his job to Democratic donors and voters in California, he’d be backing a completely different agenda, and getting his credit card bills paid by a different collection of moneyed interests. Changing this arrangement requires more than selecting different representatives.
Something happened in 2018 that poses a threat to Wu Tang Politics. For the first time in our lifetimes, Democrats expanded from their fortified base in a few central cities and impoverished rural areas, into the white suburbs. These suburban voters had long been the marks in the Republican con. They are switching sides because they are angry over the Republican grift, and Democrats haven’t yet found a way to stretch their game to co-opt them into compliance.
This new coalition of relatively educated, upper and middle income voters are harder to appease with tokens. So far, the new representatives they’ve sent to DC have been gullible, credulous and timid, but the rage they face from their constituents makes them an unstable element in the coalition. Senior representatives will be looking to buy off the rookies with packages of transit money, fat campaign donations, or school grants, anything that will shut them up and calm their voters.
Want to build a political system that cares about smart, effective public policy? Press your representatives to take the most radical positions on questions of public integrity. When they fail, replace them. Reject appeals to “pragmatism” that allow our current crop of rentiers to continue fattening themselves on us. Force your representatives to disclose their financial interests. Refuse to compromise on public ethics simply to protect partisan priorities.
When Republicans scream “socialism,” laugh at them. When Democrats urge patience, replace them and expose their finances. Don’t let our push for reform be centered entirely on the grubby career of Donald Trump, and don’t be so naïve as to think that Wu Tang Politics began or will end with him. With Republicans backing an indefensible leader and Democrats expanding their coalition to the suburbs, both parties have lit a fire that could cleanse this system. Seize this opportunity without compromise.
We are living under the government we deserve. We’ll get a better one as soon we make it happen.