By Mike Ranville

“The President shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Article II, Section 3, Clause 1.

We are in the midst of that political season where presidents, governors and mayors deliver their annual State of the … messages. Originally intended to distinguish fledgling America from the British monarchy, the annual report to the people is now a staged political rally, each phrase in the message carefully weighed for its favorable impact on voters. Seldom is heard a discouraging word.              

Armies of wordsmiths fashion meticulously-crafted litanies of accomplishments; real, embellished or fully imagined. Not surprisingly the message is often launched with an assurance that “The state of … is sound.” 

In Michigan The State of … is not sound.  Approval ratings for the legislature are consistently low, and understandably so.  Two issues, from a list of many, help explain why; the corporate campaign money that drives the state’s political process, and the manner in which the will of the people has been relegated to little more than a clever turn of phrase to punctuate a 4th of July speech. Recent events illustrate the two are closely related.  

While politicians in Lansing sanctimoniously rail against special interests — “You can bend my ear but you can’t twist my arm” — they not only accept campaign donations from those interests, but actively court them. The blatant duplicity invites comparison to the scene in Casablanca where Rick’s Café is raided for gambling and an irate Captain Renault registers his righteous indignation – “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”  As the croupier hands Renault his money – “Your winnings, sir,” – he responds, “Oh, thank you very much!” 

Only the truly naïve cling to the notion that a corporate donation in today’s political arena reflects a patriotic concern for a more perfect union. On the contrary, a return on investment is expected; the larger the check the greater the expectation.  Not unlike a new piece of equipment for a business, public policy is purchased.  The corporate campaign contribution has become an investment.  Like any investment it is accompanied by an anticipated level of performance.  Make no mistake, as in any transaction, there is an eager buyer and a willing seller.  

The money is deployed to create television ads and brochures that attack opponents with claims that have only a passing acquaintance with accuracy.  Political campaigns have long abandoned any pretense of informing the eloctrate.  Sadly, the vast majority of voters base their decisions on those ads and brochures.  

Transparency, once a hallmark of our campaign finance system, is now a wistful memory. There was a time when campaign donations were public information; voters were able to evaluate for themselves if contributions influenced an elected official. But that ceded independent judgment to the people; given too much information the great unwashed can be unpredictable. Donor lists were removed from the public domain. The writers of checks were free to go about the business of purchasing government, and do so apart from the prying eyes of the great unwashed.      

The will of the people — the very cornerstone of democracy — has been supplanted by the needs of special interests and partisan politics.  

In Michigan, laws can be overturned via a public initiative, with one notable exception. In order to ensure the state’s ability to pay its bills and maintain its credit rating, the framers of the Michigan Constitution included a provision that budget bills cannot be submitted to a public referendum. That provision has been exploited for partisan gain far beyond its original purpose.  

A cosmetic appropriation is now routinely inserted into controversial bills as a way to prevent the wisdom of the legislature from being challenged by an annoying public initiative. Conceived with a noble intent, the provision is now anointed as a clever maneuver.  So much for democracy and the will of the people.    

Events that occurred in the most recent lame-duck session illustrate how beholden the legislature has become to the corporate dollar.   

In carefully orchestrated moves designed to serve those who had just financed their campaigns, smirking legislators swatted aside the will of the people. Despite overwhelming approval in the November election, a number of voter initiatives were eviscerated. The parliamentary shell game found a willing accomplice in a governor willing to sell his political soul for an environmentally unsound pipeline.  What a grand day it was for the corporate campaign dollar, one of its finest hours. The investment had returned sterling dividends. Democracy and that annoying will of the people were sacrificed to serve their needs.      

Why stop when you’re on a roll? With lightly veiled racism hovering, the genuflection continued when legislation designed specifically to frustrate the effort to secure the proper amount of signatures to place an issue before the people was approved.  Somewhere, George Orwell was smiling – “I told you so.”   

It’s not new, and it’s not unique to Michigan.  The prescient pen of George Bernard Shaw in his acclaimed play Major Barbara is worth summoning.  

In the play, a successful munitions manufacturer, estranged from his family for a number of years, seeks to re-establish a relationship with his son. He asks the young man what he intends to do with his life. “Serve the government of my country,” the idyllic son responds.  And that launches the symbolic tirade – business speaks to government.      

“The government of your country!  I am the government of your country.  Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you . . . can govern me?  No, my friend, you will do what pays me.  You will make war when it suits me, and keep peace when it doesn’t.  You will find that trade requires certain measures when I have decided on those measures.  When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need.  When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military.  And in return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman.  Government of your country!  Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucuses, and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys.  I am going back to my counting house to pay the piper and call the tune.” 

It’s worth noting that Shaw penned the above passage in 1905.  

Your comments and criticisms are urged and welcomed.