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Buying democracy is just wrong

Readers take issue with's Bill McKibben on the influence of money in politics. But McKibben says that the wealthy should not be allowed to own democracy.

December 17, 2011

Bill McKibben's Dec. 14 Op-Ed article decrying the influence of corporate money in Washington vis a vis the political battle over building the Keystone XL pipeline prompted several readers to say McKibben unfairly targeted those politicians who take the side of industry. One letter writer quipped that McKibben "writes an entire Op-Ed article about the corrupting influence of money in politics and never mentions the word 'union' once."

Reader Robert Helbing of Monrovia said big money influences all sides of a debate, including McKibben's own environmental activism:

"Bill McKibben complains that oil company donations affect the votes of Republicans in Washington. What about green energy donations affecting Obama's policies? A major Solyndra investor, George Kaiser, was also a big fundraiser for President Obama's campaign. It's been estimated that up to 80% of the companies receiving Department of Energy grants had investors who donated to Obama.

"What about McKibben's own group, It accepts donations and uses them for political purposes. It organizes demonstrations, runs negative ads against politicians it dislikes and endorses policies and leaders that fit its agenda. Is he the same kind of slave to his donor base that he implies the Republicans are to theirs?

"The dilemma is this: Restricting money in politics can't be done without also restricting political speech. And freedom of speech (especially in the public sphere) is one of our most cherished rights."

Bill McKibben responds:

It's not politics I object to. Clearly, and any other advocacy group on Earth engages in it. It's paying money to politicians that I think stinks.

Lawmakers are supposed to be the referees in our political life, deciding on what constitutes the common good. That's why we call them (though now it sounds remarkably ironic) "public servants." Hell, we even call them "honorable." But if they're taking money from the interests they're judging, that's dishonorable. It's fine to "work the refs" — that's what players and coaches do. But buying them off?

And in fact, we can separate free speech from the flood of money. Public financing of campaigns would go a long way toward making sure that everyone gets heard and no one can drown anyone out just because they say things that benefit the rich. The 1% get most of the luxuries our planet has to offer — but democracy is a necessity, and they shouldn't be allowed to own that too.

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