What New Yorkers Can Do About Money in Politics

I don't think Governor Cuomo's refusal to debate Zephyr Teachout is really about sexism. It's about money-ism. In this democracy, not to have money is not to be qualified.
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There's a meme spreading fast through the tubes of the Internets about what explains Governor Cuomo's refusal to debate Zephyr Teachout. Here's one tweet:

It's a fun way to be angry about the outrage of the governor refusing to debate. But I don't think this is really about sexism. It's about money-ism: Zephyr is not entitled to debate the governor not because she's a woman, but because she's a woman without money. (Of course that's not unrelated.) And in this democracy, not to have money is not to be qualified.

This is the same reality Buddy Roemer confronted in 2012. Roemer was the most qualified Republican running for president. He had been a governor, he had served three terms in the House of Representatives, and he had run a successful community bank -- kind of a Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain wrapped in one. But Roemer had made money the issue in his campaign, refusing to accept contributions of greater than $100, and refusing PAC money. He was therefore not qualified to even debate the other candidates. Literally. At first, he was told he had to have 1 percent national name recognition to be allowed to debate. When he got that, he was told he needed 2 percent. When he got that, he was told he had to have raised $500k in the prior six weeks. Not to have money means not to be qualified.

For Cuomo, the disdain goes even deeper. If this campaign has shown us anything, it has shown us Andrew Cuomo as Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, he believes the word "independent" only ever appears in scare quotes: Nixon appointed an "independent" prosecutor, and then demanded the special prosecutor take direction from Nixon; Cuomo appointed an "independent" corruption commission and then insisted it was "absurd" to say the governor had no power to stop it from investigating him.

But the likeness is even deeper. There's a meanness that wasn't as obvious before. And a pettiness. If there's one thing great politicians are great at, it is the ability to step outside the fight, and treat each other decently. Watch this from the Labor Day Parade:

The man can't even look her in the face. She's smiling and open, persistent in her effort to engage him. He acts as if he doesn't even see her -- forgetting that as humans, and all recognize the "I'm pretending I don't see you" look.

But even that's not enough for the Nixon of New York. When asked about the encounter, he just can't stop himself from playing the part to a tee.

"Why tell the truth? It's not like she's rich enough to check me."

There's a fundamental line that has been crossed, and I fear we're going to get really angry about it, but not in time. As the story slowly spreads, as the recognition becomes unavoidable, frustration with this "system" is going to overflow. And while the ever-optimists will say, "That's great, because then we can channel that passion into change later," I, unavoidably focused, think we should be channeling that passion right now.

He is our (Democrats) Nixon. Why can't we make him our Eric Cantor? Because to revive this democracy enough to give anyone under 40 a reason to care would require as much.

In a literal sense of the word, it is possible. There are more than enough New York Democrats connected to these tubes to defeat Cuomo. And while there isn't the money in Zephyr's campaign to orchestrate the television commercials that would rally those Democrats, there is the free and still basically open Internet that Tim Wu defends. That platform is still effectively neutral, and it is still possible for everyone touched by these words to reach 10 others, and they 10 others, and so on. Until it becomes as obvious as Lincoln that in a democracy, this behavior is unacceptable. Money is not the measure of a citizen. Or a candidate. And anyone who doesn't get that shouldn't get the chance to call himself the nominee of the Democratic Party. Again.

You know 10 New Yorkers. "Talk" to them -- while the tubes are still open and basically free.

Follow Lawrence Lessig on Tumblr, where this post first appeared.

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