"Just surgically disconnect your shame sensor": What Ted Cruz gets right about how American plutocracy works

The Tea Party hero probably won't admit it, but this joke of his shows one way American plutocrats hold onto power

By Elias Isquith
Published April 20, 2015 4:31PM (EDT)
  (AP/Nati Harnik)
(AP/Nati Harnik)

At the risk of inflicting untold damage to my precious “brand,” I am going to ask that you allow me to praise Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. Even worse, I am going to do so for the the second time in just a single week. (If this turns out to be the first stage of the apocalypse — and Justin Bieber soon reveals himself to be, in fact, the antichrist — I’m totally willing to shoulder the blame.)

Before you accuse me of being a Manchurian blogger sent by a secret #tcot cabal, though, take a look at a joke Cruz told this weekend while he was campaigning for president in New Hampshire. Because although it’s strange to say this, it’s one of the best descriptions I've ever seen of how unlimited campaign spending corrupts American democracy. Here it is, via Politico:

One of the most interesting moments from Cruz’s exchange with the activists came when he complained about how much of his time he spends fundraising.

“I’ve told my six-year-old daughter, ‘Running for office is real simple: you just surgically disconnect your shame sensor,’” he said. “Because you spend every day asking people for money. You walk up and say, ‘How are you doing, sir? Can I have money? Great to see you, lovely shirt, please give me money.’ That’s what running for office is like.”

It is, granted, a pretty good joke. If he isn’t trying too hard, which is almost never, Cruz can be funny-ish, if not technically funny.

Nevertheless, that’s not the reason why I think Cruz’s quip is such a good vehicle for understanding the depressing reality of contemporary American politics. Instead, I chose to highlight Cruz’s admission of shamelessness because it helps explain why politicians are so exclusively focused on the interests of the rich. It’s not just because the wealthy provide the vast majority of campaign donations; it’s also because they’re often the only voters candidates speak with.

However, if I’m pushing my lefty readers too far outside their comfort zone (qualified praise for Cruz is step one; memorizing the entirety of “Capitalism and Freedom” comes next) I can offer another, more ideologically unthreatening example.

Back in late 2006, a Democratic freshman senator from Illinois released a mostly run-of-the-mill campaign book. The senator was a guy named Barack Obama; and the book, his second, was titled “The Audacity of Hope.” For the most part, the book’s held up about as well as any other campaign platform cum manifesto — which is to say, not very. But there’s one section in particular that I always return to. It is, quite likely, the only example of President Barack Obama sounding like Ted Cruz.

A little less than a third of a way through “Audacity,” Obama writes about running for the Democratic Party’s Senate nomination against a well-heeled opponent. He notes that while he was ignored by “most corporate PACs” — a turn of events he describes in the book as something of a blessing, since it spared him from having to worry about guilt-by-association — he still had to spend copious amounts of time soliciting donations. Sounding strikingly like Cruz, he writes that the experience “eliminated any sense of shame I once had in asking strangers for large sums of money.”

But more important is the way Obama's spending most of his time asking for money led to his traveling in social circles that were homogenous — “law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists” — and far removed from the lived experiences of millions upon millions of Americans. He says that while he held firm on his “core issues,” he also felt himself avoiding topics where he knew he and his potential future donor were likely to disagree. And even if he never sold out, co-mingling so frequently with the 1 percent, he says, began to influence his worldview.

“I know that as a consequence of my fundraising,” Obama writes:

I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population — that is, the people I’d entered public life to serve … The longer you are a senator, the narrower the scope of your interactions. You may fight it with town hall meetings and listening tours and stops by the old neighborhood. But you schedule dictates that you move in a different orbit from most of the people you represent.

Remember that this was published in 2006, just a little more than three years prior to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. There were PACs and big donors aplenty; elections were hardly squeaky clean. But the flood of “dark money” that’s saturated American politics ever since the Court destroyed a century of campaign finance law had not arrived yet. And Obama is writing about running for Senate — not the White House.

In every possible way, the status quo in which Cruz and his fellow presidential aspirants operate is much, much worse.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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