Richard Cohen, a longtime syndicated columnist for the Washington Post who is the type of liberal that gives the word a bad name, had a column Thursday in which he made the case that when using the phrase “culture of corruption,” the real problem with Bush and the Republicans in D.C. is “not…corruption having to do with money, it’s…corruption having to do with thought. The Bush administration is intellectually corrupt.”

By “corruption having to do with money,” Cohen means only the narrow legal cases against Jack Abramoff, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and other Republicans with past or future indictments and guilty verdicts. These cases he dismisses as small potatoes compared to “intellectual corruption,” or what he describes as the “magical thinking” of the Bush administration, that “what works is what ought to work,” scientific evidence or geopolitical history be damned. Under this, Cohen lumps everything from stem-cell research and abstinence-only sex education to global warming and the invasion of Iraq.

To be sure, there’s an intellectual (sic) pattern there, and it’s resulted consistently in enormously destructive decisions that have brought widespread, unnecessary misery and have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, especially in Iraq. But don’t short sell the damage caused by corruption of the more old-fashioned kind.

The problem is that Cohen, like most longtime creatures of the Beltway, only sees “corruption” in terms of elected officials breaking the laws written by…elected officials. But that will always be only a bit of the very tip of the iceberg, such a small part of the problem as to be essentially irrelevant. Washington itself is corrupt. All of it. Every elected official wins office through an elaborate system of legalized bribery called campaign donations and quid pro quo, and every single law passed or not passed and signed into law by the federal government is the product of the judgment (and both political and monetary interests, which are basically interchangeable) of the people amoral enough to have already been bribed into office. Most of whom are focused from the moment of that election on raising money for the next election, often from the same corporations and industries they oversee, write bills for, and vote on other bills regarding.

It’s hard to imagine a more corrupt system. It’s far worse than wheelbarrows full of money, because they don’t make wheelbarrows large enough to contain the sort of cash that gets someone elected to Congress (let alone the presidency). We live in an electronic age, and compared to the amount of money a corporation can make from favorable legislation — sometimes billions of dollars — wiring money to buy a few Congressmen is astonishingly cheap.

That’s corruption, and it surely kills far more people than “intellectual corruption,” because not only did it bring all those intellectually corrupt people to power — with all the blood on their hands — but you can also add in all the unnecessary deaths, the deaths from lack of universal health care and from poverty and malnutrition and from shredded safety nets and from all those programs our government should spend money on, but doesn’t, because — just like outsourced jobs and the poor folk in New Orleans — the beneficiaries don’t even vote, let alone donate, in sufficient numbers for their life and death concerns to matter. The needs of large segments of America — judging from our evaporating middle class, perhaps 80% — are usually ignored because our system elects and reelects people who gain little by paying attention to their needs. There are exceptions, honorable ones, to be sure, but not enough of them to get much in the way of bills passed or public policy changed.

And it’s a bipartisan problem. Democrats like to argue that a “culture of corruption” is a Republican creature, and it’s true that both the overall amount of money in politics and the more blatant forms of quid pro quo have gone up exponentially in these recent years of Republican rule. But that’s largely because of the nature of bribes; it’s the Republicans who can get things done. Democrats, in the stretches of yesteryear when they controlled both the White House and Congress, operated in the same vein, only without the benefit of modern corruption technology. But there’s a reason why the “lobbyist reform” package Democrats pushed in the wake of Abramoff is just as lame as the one introduced by the Republicans, and both are quietly withering away. And there’s a reason why every prominent Democratic leader in Congress (Hillary, Lieberman, Biden, Feinstein, Kerry, to name five) is not remotely representative of their increasingly angry Democratic Party base. Even with the fundraising power of the Internet, demonstrated years ago by, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, and others, Hillary is considered the party “frontrunner” for 2008 due to the well-established Clinton corporate donor base — even though the fact that conservatives despise her, progressives aren’t far behind, and centrists can’t figure out what the hell she stands for makes her, even more than other DLCers, manifestly unelectable. Money talks, even if it’s a losing rap.

When people think of corruption in Washington, that’s what we think about, and when we resent two-faced politicians who always seem to make things worse, that’s why the politicians are two-faced, and that’s why they always seem to make things worse. Both parties have learned how to game this system by picking candidates that seem only a little less odious than the other party’s. Lately Republicans have been more successful at this, having persuaded large numbers of people to vote against their own economic interests. Once ordinary voters have been suckered into a winning plurality, they’re promptly forgotten until the next time around, and the next whipped-up hot-button issue that has nothing to do with anything to the people that matter.

What would help? Public financing of campaigns, to get the corporate money out of elections and lobbying, for one. Better grass roots organizing, for another. Many people do care about politics, and want to participate in public policy, but have learned the hard way that the choices will always be unappealing and that their vote doesn’t much count. Those people will need to be recruited back to the voting booth (or its equivalent), and that will take both time and clear changes in who can run for office and who can win. Grass roots organizing can produce principled candidates with momentum. Public financing of campaigns can make their campaigns viable. Proportional representation systems, like instant runoff voting, would also help, but one step at a time.

The first imperative is to tackle corruption — the real kind, the kind that is more common than oxygen in Washington D.C., so common that even pseudo-critical pundits like Cohen don’t even notice as they breathe it. Clearly, that won’t happen by Congress or the White House getting a sudden burst of conscience. The pressure must come from below, from the 300 million or so Americans, spanning all ideologies and parties, who are tired of taxation without representation. Once upon a time, that was enough to make us launch a revolution. These days, surely, it ought to be enough of an issue to get us enough of us to agitate that we can overthrow our corrupt electoral system, and install something more closely resembling a democracy.

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