A View from Glen Hill: Democracy for sale?

Money is the common denominator of much political discourse and action these days. If you have it and are prepared to use it, you can push the political process to advance your own interests and agenda as far as your money will take you. Maybe that has always been so. It just seems a lot more in-your-face these days, especially since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.

Likewise, the most powerful governmental regulatory force in our economy is our tax system, and it is regularly being manipulated by those with the resources to fund the lobbying process by which our tax laws are crafted and recrafted to meet the needs of particular sectors of our economy and of particular businesses and individuals — even as many of these very same folks vociferously decry “government regulation.”

When money becomes our common denominator, things get out of whack fast. The pursuit of nothing but individual gain destabilizes the body politic. No wonder we get governmental gridlock. The irony of this is that political figures of both parties always cite our Founding Fathers and Mothers as exemplars of the highest conduct for the common good. And rightly so, in that their sacrificial decisions and actions eventually led to our nation’s creation. They knowingly put their own and their families’ lives and fortunes at grave risk to achieve their lofty purposes.

They sought free expression of ideas and political liberty in a nation that would cultivate working for the common good, transcending personal gain but also potentially fostering great economic growth in a land where you could hope to realize your goals if you were willing to work hard to try to achieve them. They certainly had continuing fundamental differences on a variety of highly important matters of governance and economics, as Professor Matthew Warshauer emphasized last month before an enthusiastic audience at the Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society’s first presentation in their series on the War of 1812 as he described the political forces at work leading up to that war. Yet they still found ways to common ground for that common good.

To be sure, they also had flaws, some grave beyond measure: for example, preaching in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed…with certain inalienable Rights” while themselves engaging in slave ownership in a number of cases and, true for everyone of them, kicking far down the road the resolution of the issue of slavery in the very Constitution that gave substance to their lofty purposes. That they were sensitive on the issue of slavery is evident in their calculated craftsmanship of our Constitution to contain no use of the words “slave” or “slavery” even as it provided for the counting of slaves in determining population for key electoral purposes and allowed for the importation of slaves to continue until at least 1808 — using linguistic indirection nonetheless plainly understood by all.

So while they were far from perfect, they nevertheless had a vision that propelled them forward for the greater good of their (non-slave) countrymen. That vision transcended personal financial gain. Most of them could have enjoyed comfortable lives under the colonial status quo; but they wanted something much greater for themselves and their descendants, and they put their whole beings on the line to get it.

What is our vision today? Income and wealth disparities in our society have become among the worst in the world. Those disparities are greatly enlarged by the manipulative power that large amounts of money provide to those who possess that money and use it to influence the political process.

As someone expressed to me recently, “we’re the Titanic converging on that iceberg with those few passengers who see the approaching danger choosing not to alert the captain but instead packing as many possessions and as much food as they can into a lifeboat with a hearty ‘out-of-here!’ good-bye.” But those who cavalierly think the lifeboat will be taking them to safety may themselves be sucked under with the sinking ship if we can’t find a way to restore a national sense of community with shared common vision.

To do so, we have to restrain the twin urges to buy what we want on the market for political power and to look purely to getting the most for ourselves. Otherwise, the future of our nation’s bold experiment - so markedly different from the governing principles of the world for the millennia before — will be tragically compromised.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.