Money in politics, promises and trust

Yesterday, former Seattle mayor and recent candidate Mike McGinn tweeted about recent political committee donations in our mayor's race:

I’ve been there so you can trust me on this. Corporations don’t write big checks like this without firm promises first. Lets review (1)

He then had a many tweet thread about the problems of money in politics and some local political alignments. I've been kind of stewing about it. Most of the folks I follow in Seattle politics are Moon supporters, so partly I am just seeing an ever increasing stream of Durkan criticism which wears after a while, even when you don't particularly care about the candidate. But I couldn't really figure out what it was.

The thread popped up (again) this morning and I realized the problem for me is that phrase "firm promises" and what it says about our political discourse. I've been reading the Wellstone campaign book and it reminds you:

The truth is that those of us who care passionately about politics— who write and read books on how to win elections, for example— are not normal.

Charitably, I realize that all McGinn is trying to say is that the political decision makers at these corporations perceive their business interests to be aligned with Durkan's apparent policies and likely style of governance. No one (well, maybe a very few) believe that she promised anything she wasn't saying publicly because someone who works at the Chamber of Commerce promised to help her win the election. It was obvious from Day 1 of her campaign that she was positioning herself as the centrist (for Seattle), moderate, "get things done but not too extreme or fast or disruptive to established interests" candidate. She's well-known to many political figures at all levels of government and business. They know how to work with her. She touts her association with Obama who is also that kind of politician.

But this post is not about Durkan exactly or her policy positions, but rather as an example of something that happens in politics. I do not care all that much about the mayor's race: I think whoever wins will do no worse and probably a fair bit better than our last few mayors but I am not personally "in love" with either candidate. Probably we can blame the worst primary ever for that. In any case, Seattle is in good hands with a great city council and nothing about this election will change that much. The rest of the state is not so lucky so if you want to stop reading this navel-gazing now and go volunteer to flip the state senate (or whatever the critical campaign is in your part of the world), that's probably a better use of your time.

This tweet and this style of discourse about money in politics reads as if politicians are literally out there being bribed to change their positions. As if Durkan, somehow, would actually be an outright socialist but, shucks, the business lobby agreed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect her, so her hands are tied. You may not like her or her policy positions, but she's not actually taking orders from the Chamber. But if you aren't someone who thinks a lot about politics — go read that Wellstone book quote again — I think you could be forgiven if you thought that's what McGinn (and many others) are implying if not outright saying.

I think a lot of people genuinely believe that politicians are often that corrupt. That the majority of politicians are scheming in backrooms with moneyed interests to screw the little guy — not because they are ideologically aligned, but just for pure personally self-interested reasons. I don't think that's true and I doubt you do if you've ever talked to an actual elected official or candidate for office in person for more than ten seconds. To the last of them, even ones I wildly disagreed with, have credibly evinced a desire to do what they think is right for the city (state, country).

I think we do a disservice when we simplify the conflicts in the mayor's race (or any political contest) to being just about business or corporate interests versus the good steward of the people. We aren't taking people at face value which harms our ability to make connections and agreements. If you look at their policy positions, the mayoral candidates just aren't that different. All that money from business and labor and, quite honestly, lots of "regular folks", flowing into one campaign is about more than just corporate interests crowning their champion. I've seen this at Democratic party meetings watching both mayoral candidates' supporters, all of whom are passionately devoted to their candidate. I have my ideas about what Ithink is going on and it's certainly more interesting than the leaders of SEIU 775 supposedly being "foolish" to align with Comcast in supporting a candidate "obviously" harmful to their workers' interests.

There are a lot of people in the city (and state) supporting Durkan and it's just not useful to treat them as dupes or fools, if we want to build long-term sustainable change. Would you want to work with people who persist in saying you're stupid or a dupe? But calling people stupid is what I see a lot of Seattle political wags doing right now. I would say progressives but that's apparently a dirty word now. ;) Maybe we could be as critical of people being disdainful as we are of their use of the word progressive.