Can ‘Lincoln’ Still Happen Here and Now?

One lesson most moviegoers picked up from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” was that the workings of Congress have always involved downright ugly wheeling and dealing. Votes were bought, sold and traded to pass both good and bad legislation.

The laudatory goal of that January 1865 backroom and back-alley horse-trading was to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude. Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, were uncomfortable with offering direct monetary bribes to buy the necessary votes, but instead authorized agents to under-handedly contact Democratic congressmen with offers of federal jobs in exchange for their support.

Americans can cling to the idea that their country is somehow virtuous, even uniquely so. But contrary to what we might want to believe about America as an exceptionally pristine nation moving in some providential way toward the expansion of liberty, the fact is that the good that’s been accomplished has often been achieved by moving politicians through appeal to their pocketbooks, their desire to amass fortunes, offers of opportunities for their personal futures, and other base, egotistic needs.

There’s no evidence that such political motivations have disappeared. But what has changed is that what Lincoln had to offer as incentives is no longer effective.

Honest Abe offered patronage appointments that guaranteed that lame duck politicians could live out their days in secure federal jobs. Back then that was an effective payment for their vote.

Today a similar offer of a government job has little appeal. It can’t compete financially with vastly more lucrative corporate, lobbying, or consulting jobs waiting to reward politicians who vote pro-corporate and, thereby, earn those positions before they exit government.

Today’s reality is that even being voted out of office is hardly a penalty in the ongoing culture of “the best Congress money can buy.” To lose an election means that one is going to enter a much better paid career through the revolving door into lobbying and consulting.

Yet one will only earn that reward if one has consistently voted for what benefits those future corporate employers. So, though we might ask why many politicians aren’t thinking logically, or in the light of what works economically, or for the betterment of the whole country, these have become less relevant questions.

Sadly, it’s true in either party. It explains why Democratic leadership is repeatedly unwilling to actively confront Republicans, why they keep acting as if Republican leadership includes honest brokers, why the Democratic millionaires in the Senate appear to think that Republicans will miraculously repent and act in ways they haven’t in over a decade.

Most in Congress, no matter what political party they claim, will financially benefit personally from Republican victories. Thus, Democrats are willing to move further to the right wing while the right wing jumps up and down in the same place.

There are exceptions among the Democrats, probably none any longer among the Republicans in Congress. But for some reason Senate Democrats continue to elect Harry Reid as their leader even though he can’t seem to lead his majority to a progressive win.

Reid’s recent whining about Republican misuse of the filibuster follows his capitulation to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell after expressing his frustration with Republican filibuster misuse in 2012. Reid caved, and one wonders what Harry got out of the deal for himself.

Either Harry and the Democrats who continue to let him lead don’t know how things work and don’t pay attention to recent history, or they have a stake in keeping things the way they are.

Fool you once, Harry, shame on the Republicans. Fool you how many times now, Harry and your senators, shame on you.

So, what motivates lawmakers today? Choose one or more:

  1. Ideology. So entranced by their ideological stands, and so caught in ideological bubbles, or so caught in an Obama derangement syndrome, no set of facts will change them. They’re like advanced addicts for whom only personally hitting bottom could dislodge them. Otherwise, they’ll never identify with anything that’ll disrupt their entrenched worldview.
  2. Power and prestige. Once people have accumulated massive fortunes and found that money doesn’t bring fulfillment, they turn to seek personal fulfillment in the accumulation of power and adulation especially from those in the upper class whom they accept as worthy competitors. They’re more likely to be affected by the threat of losing their elected positions, unless, like Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), they become convinced that they’ll accumulate more power in the world of lobbying. And another source of prestige is the attention they can get as Fox News personalities.
  3. Money. There are lawmakers committed to corporate goals because they see this as the way to further their careers and accumulate millions after leaving politics. A legislative position is the place to increase their financial value to corporate America by making insider government connections and proving they are worth the money they hope to gain later.
  4. Security. Politics is a tool to secure these lawmakers’ personal business interests by ensuring laws increasing their tax and other advantages. They see themselves as barriers preventing government from adding restrictions and financial costs to their wealth.
  5. Benevolence and pity. No matter how much of it is money-raising and at times kowtowing to people with money, politics is a chance to improve the lives of others even at personal cost. That price could be financial loss, but doing the right thing could even mean the end of political office.

Staying in power can have multiple, often lower, motives. No matter how we want to believe that politicians will be moved by benevolence, logic, facts, the “good of the country” or “what’s best for citizens,” the reality is usually quite different.

So, when we approach politicians, let’s abandon any illusions. Let’s do it realistically.

Let’s recognize that we’re confronting self-centered reasons for hanging onto power. And then proceed in the light of Frederick Douglass’ realism: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”