Dan Simpson: Three ominous trends for America

There's too much money in politics, too many economic sanctions and too much spying

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The function of the newspaper industry in American society — keeping it informed, free and democratic — is being underlined sharply by three major trends, each appalling in its implications for the future of the country.

The first is the massively growing role of money in the selection of who governs the country, at the national and state level, aided by America’s increasingly politicized courts. The second is a foreign policy, so far not generally revealed or correctly interpreted by the media, that has America increasingly punishing — rather than promoting — fruitful American foreign trade with a list of countries. The third is some complicity on the part of American media in not digging into and revealing actions on the part of U.S. governments that violate Americans’ need to know and their freedom to communicate with each other about what their government is doing.

The absolute only way to avoid candidates winning elections on the basis of either their own money or of money given them by interest groups or individuals who will then have bought the officeholder is for the voter to know who is financing the candidate, and with how much, and then voting against a candidate on that basis.

One candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, put $10 million of his own money into the campaign early, quickly scooped up on the basis of that cash the endorsements of Western Pennsylvania’s leading Democratic Party politicians, including Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, and soared to the top of the list of Democratic candidates for the post.

Whatever one might think of the other candidates, at least one of them, Kathleen McGinty, was tagged early on as a good candidate but with not enough money compared to Mr. Wolf. That means he and other candidates across the country who either have or have access to big money can, in effect, buy a public office the way that they might buy an apartment in the Caribbean, a large yacht or a private airplane.

That is not the way Americans get the kind of good governance they need and deserve. The fact that is the way the system works is also a shame on the politicized Supreme Court, with its Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions that removed limits on campaign finance.

The best way for Americans to deal with this phenomenon is to vote on the basis of a candidate’s funding and to reject candidates — even if they sound good in the television ads — on the basis of their seeking to buy the elections.

A second appalling trend in America is in foreign policy. Economic sanctions are certainly better tools than war. At the same time, in imposing economic sanctions, Washington governments tend not to say what the cost will be to America in terms of forgone trade and investment opportunities.

At the moment, the United States has in place economic sanctions on Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. The foreign trade of these five countries amounts annually to some $235 billion. Absent U.S. sanctions, their trade would not necessarily have been with the United States. Nevertheless, American companies and banks, with the sanctions in place, were clearly denied opportunities that otherwise would have been available. We need to trade.

The case of Russia and Ukraine is also very relevant in considering the effect of sanctions. One of the biggest exports of Russia, against which Washington is ratcheting up sanctions or threatening to, is natural gas. It is surely not coincidental that, if Russian natural gas exports are curtailed by sanctions, the price of natural gas, a new and growing U.S. export, will grow exponentially, augmenting the profits of U.S. producers. It also can’t be an accident that America’s natural gas producers are also important players in financing national and state election campaigns.

The third phenomenon is the truly appalling omnipresence of government snooping. The problem is, first, that the National Security Agency, the CIA and the FBI are doing it. Second is that it is a constant battle for the media and people to find out what they are doing. Last week, Pulitzer prizes were awarded to The Washington Post and the Guardian for revelations on that subject made possible by Edward J. Snowden. His material was also carried by the German publication, Der Spiegel.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the two Pulitzers is that some American journalists have criticized the selection committee for its actions, suggesting that their awards hurt the credibility of U.S. publications by honoring the journals which reported the information. One of the right-wing troglodytes’ favorite enemies risked his life and gave up his freedom to reveal it.

Some Germans see the matter differently, understanding the importance of Mr. Snowden’s acts and honoring him. But then, their recent history includes Hitler’s Gestapo and the East German Communist Stasi, not just the tender ministrations against its own people of the regimes of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

None of these three developments — the growing role of money in elections, the hidden costs of economic sanctions imposed on foreign countries nor the comprehensive spying on Americans and the seeming indifference or complicity of some of the American media in the practice — are positive for Americans in terms of the quality of our lives or freedoms as the 21st century advances.

Fortunately, there are ways of fighting all three. First, demand to know what is going on. Second, vote against candidates who try to buy elected office. Third, don’t take at face value the claim that economic sanctions are all good. And fourth, honor — don’t condemn — the people who stick their necks out to get the truth to us, especially those who reveal actions our governments take in our names but then hide from us, treating us like children. This just mustn’t be.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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