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The Mechanics
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Blagojevich Thu Dec 08 2011

Don't Bad-Apple Blagojevich

A familiar trope in the wake of a high-profile institutional failure, whether private or public, is the suggestion or outright assertion that the disaster was the fault of a lone gunman, a "bad apple" whose actions shouldn't be allowed to spoil how we view the rest of the bunch. Messrs. Cheney and Wolfwitz rolled out this cliché when the horrors of Abu Ghraib surfaced. We were told that Enron was, similarly, an outlier of financial fraud, rather than emblematic of how regulatory schemes (or the lack thereof) are too often purchased in what Greg Palast has called "the best democracy money can buy." In the wake of a major environmental disaster the prompts for the "bad apple" defense are sometimes audible. And, of course, when an official misbehaves, others in the arena are always ready with the singular-fruit metaphor.

While some columnists, editors, and bloggers don't shy from painting with a broader brush, most Illinois political players are reluctant to make the larger case. As Monica Davey of the New York Times wrote after the ex-governor's second conviction this summer, "In the case of Mr. Blagojevich, who had few allies in Springfield even in his own party, lawmakers were quick to scurry away after his arrest, deeming him, in essence, a single bad apple rather than a political system under indictment."

We need not and should not tar every single politician, official, candidate, lobbyist, or appointee with the brush of corruption -- although my experience talking to voters indicates that plenty of them are at this point willing to do exactly that. I personally know that a passion for better policy drives many. But to make real progress we need to admit, confront, and correct the institutional forces that not only produced Rod Blagojevich, but will inevitably give us others if we don't change our ways. Focusing on the fascinating personality quirks of our ex-gov, and the off-the-charts way he handled his defense, is oh so tempting, but ultimately serves to buttress the meme of singularity.

Rod Blagojevich was as much a product of his political environment as he was an architect of any scheme. Rod Blagojevich came to power through, and shaped by, structures and mechanisms that all too many politicians, their operatives, and some enabling journalists would have us believe no longer exist. His greatest political sin was perhaps then attempting to create his own fiefdom and power center apart from dancing with some of those that brung him, and pursuing that effort not merely aggressively, but shamelessly. His "I didn't think it was wrong" defense merely reflects what many think privately but won't say publicly, that this Is How You Play The Game here. Many a playa will confide, "Everybody does it, Rod just got caught."

Yet, crazily, mention the word "machine" and a chorus of denial starts singing. I don't get this. Is there a unitary Machine with a capital M akin to when the first mayor Daley and George Dunne stood astride all of Cook County like colossi? No. The political landscape more resembles a quilt of warlords and fiefdoms. But even if the metaphor is more Holy Roman Empire than Caesar, the essence of a machine mentality not only survives, but thrives, saturating our body politic.

The essence of that mindset is barter -- compromise that is reached not by building on principles or commonalities, but by the rawest of swap. Not public interest, but favor for favor, advantage for advantage. A perfectly human process, but necessarily one that sidelines the voters whose will the system is supposed to reflect, and the taxpayers who are forced to pay the bills for feathered nests for the few. We have to connect the dots: in that transactional species of politics, as in our economy, cash and clout become king. When we make those the metric of value, we devalue everything else.

What strengthens that corrosive mindset? Talking, writing about, and making decisions based on who's witchya and whaddya got instead of ideas and ideals. Dissing reformers as "goo-goos" or "purists." Treating issues as afterthought, only after we've used D-2s and lists of endorsers to make a first cut. Looking more at vessel than at destination.

What will stop that corrosion, and build a better politics? In part, a host of reforms, most of which have to have as their central aim not just exposing, but actually reducing the role of money in politics. So long as spending is treated as speech, money will talk. Or, as Dylan wrote, swear.

Another part involves refocusing our attention on what candidates actually want to do with office. That means dissecting Herman Cain's alleged tax plan with more zeal than we devote to his sex life. It means looking less at Senate candidates' family businesses or resumé inflation, and more at what they will actually propose and pass to address inequality, insurance, or the Earth. A candidate without a plan is just an apple asking to be made into applesauce.

The alternative is to resign ourselves to more Rod Blagojeviches. Because he was in many ways a consultant's dream, exactly what the current system is designed to bring to market. Charismatic, photogenic, a party animal with a simpatico life story, backed by the powerful, and, most importantly, with an appetite for fundraising, Rod Blagojevich was the whole deal that makes pols think they've got a ticket they can ride, who knows, all the way to the White House. And there will be others. So long as reaching voters is accomplished primarily through spending, that access will be purchased. The barrel holds plenty more such apples ready to be polished, packaged, and pawned upon the public.

In the spirit of Illinois politics, those who've stuck with me this long need to be rewarded. So please enjoy this performance, which appears to be from the early '70s, of the Osmonds -- with Donny sporting an eerily Blag-like 'do.
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