In American politics, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is an odd duck indeed. For many years, he's come perilously close to identifying, in very blunt language, the big lie at the heart of American "democracy":
"...with a political campaign finance system that is corrupt and that is increasingly controlled by billionaires and special interests, I fear very much that, in fact, government of the people, by the people, for the people is perishing in the United States of America... Let us be frank, let us be honest: the current political campaign finance system is corrupt and amounts to legalized bribery."
Money isn't the most important issue in American politics and government; it's the only issue, the thing that overwhelms every other consideration, the thing around which everything else revolves. To mount a serious run for a major office, politicians must, in almost every case, prostitute themselves to the entrenched Big Money interests. Those who are most successful at this almost always win then spend much of their time in government servicing their clients' needs. On every matter of real importance, money determines policy. In recent years, multiple Supreme Court decisions, of which the Citizens United ruling is but the best known, have left in tatters even the utterly ineffectual campaign finance laws that existed prior to them. Among other things, these rulings have given rise to the super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of candidates, dark money groups that can do the same but without even publicly disclosing their donors and the use of LLCs as anonymous fronts to donate to super PACs, increasingly turning the super PACs too into super-dark-money groups. These cauldrons of corruption, brimming with the bribes of billionaires and Big Business, often outspend the candidates themselves and join with the already-obscene amounts of money those candidates raise to drown out any trace of democracy.
Liberal pols sometimes offer lip-service objections to this sorry state of affairs but when it comes to actively rejecting it, Bernie Sanders walks the walk. He refuses to prostitute himself to Big Money. No array of deep-pocketed super PACs orbit his candidacy. He's financing his presidential bid mostly via small donations from ordinary people. He's the real candidate Ted Cruz only pretends to be. He speaks frequently and forcefully against the current system of "legalized bribery" and in favor of a robust program he's offered to try to reform it.
The belief that it can be effectively reformed is perhaps an illusion of Sanders and other liberals. In rejecting the money-is-speech rationale offered by the Supreme Court for dismembering campaign finance law, Sanders doesn't address the legitimate free-speech implications of that equation--something that, of course, can't just be dismissed. At the same time, the idea that the current state of affairs can be fixed by merely reforming campaign finance seems naive, a radical underestimation of the extent of the problem. Aside from being owned by Big Money interests, most members of congress are drawn from the professional classes and are, themselves, millionaires, who are not only serving their wealthy patrons but have a personal investment in perpetuating the prerogatives of the powerful. That--preserving those prerogatives--has been a focus of government in the U.S. from the birth of the republic, enshrined in a constitution written by aristocrats terrified of a public uprising and trying to protect their own interests. And, of course, if reform would be effective, the Big Money interests that pull the strings of government would simply prevent it from going forward. It's possible these problems are simply too intractable to be responsive to mere reforms. But Sanders wants to have a go at it.
And as every poll on the subject reveals, the public is with him. A CBS News/New York Times poll from June is typical. 84% of respondents, including even 80% of Republicans, believe "money has too much influence" in political campaigns; 85% said politicians "promote policies that directly help the people and groups who donated money to their campaigns" most of the time (55%) or sometimes (30%); 39% said "fundamental changes" are needed in the campaign finance system, while a further 46% said "the system for funding political campaigns has so much wrong with it that we need to completely rebuild it." Americans understand the problem, even if they underestimate the extent and significance of it.
Politicians keep an eye on polls. In the presidential race, Sanders isn't alone in denouncing the current campaign finance system. Last year, Hillary Clinton, his chief Democratic rival, decried what she called a "political system hijacked by billionaires and special interests," rhetoric directly echoing Sanders, and calling for a package of reforms that was essentially a watered-down version of what Sanders has long proposed. To be clear, Clinton has talked about this issue for many years and it would be inaccurate to suggest, as some have, that her current push is just her aping Sanders. Her rhetoric, however, has certainly been, shall we say, influenced by his. More broadly, Clinton has been echoing and even cloning Sanders' rhetoric and proposals on many issues throughout the campaign. In the lead-up to the Iowa caucus, this trend accelerated. This isn't really surprising--Clinton has a long history of suddenly espousing selective progressive values whenever there looms an election in which such talk is politically beneficial. Her commitment to those values has an unfortunate habit of disappearing as soon as the pending election is over. Her commitment to campaign finance reform can be gauged by her activities shortly after endorsing the idea in the current presidential race--as reported by the New York Times, Clinton
"will begin personally courting donors for a 'super PAC' supporting her candidacy, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has fully embraced these independent groups that can accept unlimited checks from big donors and are already playing a major role in the 2016 race.
"Her decision is another escalation in what is expected to be the most expensive presidential race in history... Mrs. Clinton’s allies hope that with her support, the top Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, will raise $200 million to $300 million. That is on par with what the largest Republican organizations, such as the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate, spent in 2012."
Sanders has tried, either valiantly or stupidly (depending on how one evaluates such things), not to wage a campaign of personal insults but he has been critical of Hillary Clinton's ties to Wall Street. Wall Street is one of many Big Money special interests supporting Clinton's presidential efforts but it's by far the biggest, backing her with nearly $18 million. Sanders has also noted that Clinton took $675,000 in speaking fees for a trio of speeches to Goldman Sachs (which is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Clinton's lucrative business of sucking up six-figure speaking fees from regulated industries). Clinton and Sanders have clashed over this in the past. In a November debate, the subject provoked one of the most bizarre moments of the campaign; Clinton, in defending herself against the charge that she's too close to Wall Street, offered an utterly irrelevant, wrap-herself-in-the-flag invocation of the 9/11 terror attacks and said "I'm very proud that for the first time, a majority of my donors are women."
Yes, that really happened.
At Thursday's debate, all of this came to a head. Clinton, who lacks any trace of Sanders' reticence to engage in personal attacks, began lobbing bombs from the opening bell. In a dig that backfired, Clinton pointed out that some prominent Democrats from Sanders' home state of Vermont have endorsed her, to which Sanders replied, "I will absolutely admit that Secretary Clinton has the support of far more governors, mayors, members of the House. She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her. That's a fact. I don't deny it." Bristling at association with the dreaded "e" word, that thing of which no one this campaign season wants to be a part, a clearly miffed Clinton said "honestly, Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment." Faced with this meaningless, connected-to-nothing Grrrl Power demagoguery, Sanders replied:
"What being part of the establishment is, is, in the last quarter, having a super PAC that raised $15 million from Wall Street, that throughout one's life raised a whole lot of money from the drug companies and other special interests. To my mind, if we do not get a handle on money in politics and the degree to which big money controls the political process in this country, nobody is going to bring about the changes that is needed in this country for the middle class and working families."
Clinton was even less pleased with this: "Yeah, but I--I think it's fair to really ask what's behind that comment. You know, Sen. Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign. I've tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to--y'know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly. But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received. And I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I'm very proud of that. So I think it's time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks..."
At that, the key moment in the entire debate, the assembled crowd of Democrats erupted in a torrent of boos aimed at their own party's frontrunner.
Sanders, in his reply, knocked this out of the park merely by noting the obvious:
"Let's talk about issues, all right? Let's talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided--spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence. Let's ask why it is that we pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, and your medicine can be doubled tomorrow, and there's nothing that the government can do to stop it. You think it has anything to do with the huge amounts of campaign contributions and lobbying from the fossil fuel industry? Let's talk about climate change. Do you think there's a reason why not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real and that we need to transform our energy system? Do you think it has anything to do with the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil pouring huge amounts of money into the political system? That is what goes on in America... Y'know, there is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. And in my view, it is undermining American democracy and it is allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors and not the working families of this country."
Clinton's own comments go to the fundamental fraud that is Hillary Clinton, the creature who insisted "we have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our election, corrupting our political process and drowning out the voices of regular people" then immediately began soliciting donations to a super PAC, hoping to raise more dirty money than ever from special interests. At this debate, she said "we [she and Sanders] both agree with campaign finance reform" right after she'd made a forceful case that no effort at campaign finance reform is even needed. She insists she never changed a view or a vote for a buck; every other pol in government says the same thing. And, of course, it's as demonstrably false with her as it is with all the rest. As a candidate for the Senate in 2000, for example, then-First-Lady Clinton made a public show of opposing an horrendous Wall Street-supported bill aimed at stripping bankruptcy protections from consumers. Once she won her election though, she flip-flopped and adopted her Wall Street paymasters' position on the legislation, concocting a false narrative about superficial reforms justifying her vote for it. For years, she supported the Trans Pacific Partnership, backed by not only Wall Street but many other interests who had purchased a piece of her. "The gold standard in trade agreements," she called it. During this campaign season, when such a view is politically damaging, she's suddenly saying she's opposed to it, opposition which will evaporate immediately after election day. She has a long history of opposing such ruinous "free trade" agreements when running for office only to switch to supporting them when elected. And so on. That's how the game is played. In place of any real evaluation of the effects of money in politics, Clinton perpetuated an intelligence-insulting illusion that attempted to undermine the entire argument for trying to divorce the two.
Clinton's thin skin in the face of a perceived slight won out rather spectacularly over her reason in this affair and one could argue that a smart pol who knows her own hands aren't clean wouldn't have gone down this particular rabbit-hole but at the same time, Clinton knows some things. She knows most of the press won't scandalize--or even cover--her hypocrisy (it hasn't). She knows that no matter how much news orgs may hate her, they'll side with her over a left candidate any day. She knows her Republican rivals can't hit her on these matters because they're all just as dirty. And she knows the press won't and Sanders (for various reasons) can't give voice to that ugly truth, the one that lies at the heart of not only this matter but of the empire of illusions that is American politics and government:
She's bought and paid for; they're all bought and paid for.
 And though Sanders identifies as a social democrat, a sort of liberal/socialist hybrid, most of his program is comfortably liberal.
 Arguably, even calling the current state of affairs "corruption" is a misrepresentation. It may be more accurate to simply characterize it as the way the system is supposed to operate.
 For that matter, she'll espouse whatever she thinks will be politically beneficial at the time. She spent most of her career in public life opposed to gay marriage when support for it was a dangerous proposition at the polls; she only flipped on that one well after the public had come to support it.
 In chasing the Democratic nomination and trying to differentiate herself from Sanders, she's put herself in the uncomfortable position of denouncing Sanders' proposals as unrealistic even while aping many of them herself. She conflates Sanders' advocacy of single payer healthcare with Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare and characterizes it as Sanders wanting to "tear up" Obamacare and "start over again," leaving millions without healthcare, an absolutely outrageous lie which she makes worse by arguing that, because single-payer would lead to a contentious debate, it shouldn't even be tried--the ultimate conservative argument that, if accepted, would mean nothing ever got done at all. One has to believe this "No, We Can't" campaign has contributed to her recent decline in the polls. Exhibiting a shamelessness that is impressive even for an American politicians, she even invoked Harry Truman against the idea of single payer (Truman, of course, fought to establish a single payer healthcare system).
 Though Wall Street is her top donor by a mile, Clinton isn't the top recipient of Wall Street largesse. That distinction falls to Jeb Bush, who has received over $35 million; Clinton is the second-most-favored. Like most Big Money interests, Wall Street likes to play all sides and has bought a piece of every major candidate in the race. It's also the top donor to the campaigns of Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Chris Christie. It's Ted Cruz's second-biggest donor. It even bought a small piece of Donald Trump, who is mostly self-financing his campaign.
 Clinton also offered an outlandish misrepresentation of her own fundraising; Sanders had noted that most of his campaign contributors were ordinary people donating small amounts and Clinton replied, "I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small..." But in fact, 78% of the money given to her campaign committee came from large individual contributions of over $200, while she also has a number of super PACs and Carey committees (super PAC hybrids) that have raised nearly $48 million to try to elect her--her take from her small individual donations amount to less than $19 million. By contrast, 72% of Bernie Sanders' campaign war-chest come from small individual contributions.
 In a January debate, Clinton attempted to parry Sanders' assertion that she was too close to Goldman Sachs and Wall Street by asserting, "Sen. Sanders, you’re the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial markets in 2000... to make the SEC and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission no longer able to regulate swaps and derivatives, which were one of the main causes of the collapse in ’08." The reality? The legislation in question, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, couldn't pass on its own merits in 2000 so it was tacked on to an unrelated omnibus spending bill at the end of the year and legislators were given the choice of either voting for the entire package or the government would shut down. Faced with this blackmail, Sanders, like all but three legislators, did so. Years later when Gary Gensler, the CFMA's key author, was appointed to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Sanders, still fuming over this, tried to block the nomination. The punchline: The CFMA was pushed by Bill Clinton, Gensler was a former Goldman Sachs partner Clinton recruited to be a Treasury undersecretary and today, Gensler is the chief financial officer for the presidential campaign of--wait for it--Hillary Clinton.
True story. And because the press refuses to correct her, Clinton, with Gensler still managing her money, repeated her line about Sanders voting for the CFMA at the Thursday debate.
UPDATE (17 Feb.) - After that MSNBC debate, Hillary Clinton appeared on CBS News' Face the Nation and continued to try to undermine the case for campaign finance reform:
"What the Sanders campaign is trying to do is link donations to my political campaign or really donations to anyone's political campaign, with undue influence with changing people's views and votes. I've never ever done that and I really do resent the implication or as I said the other night the insinuation."
After losing the New Hampshire primary in a one-sided massacre, Clinton, from the other side of her mouth, asserted "you're not going to find anybody more committed to aggressive campaign finance reform than me," but David Sirota and Andrew Perez, writing in the International Business Times, note that:
"Only days later, Clinton’s campaign is launching a fundraising blitz that includes events with representatives of industries that have significant business interests before the federal government. An International Business Times review of fundraising invitations found that the Clinton campaign’s nationwide tour includes events with corporate officials from the food, investment and energy sectors--all of which have vested financial interests in the policies that the next presidential administration will decide."
The IBT article goes on to detail these fundraisers, including...
"Next Tuesday, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to appear at back-to-back fundraisers co-hosted by officials from Wall Street colossus BlackRock--including Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s former State Department chief of staff and a current board member of the Clinton Foundation. According to Politico, a BlackRock fundraiser for Clinton had been scheduled for last week, but Clinton's campaign postponed it until after the New Hampshire primary following criticism of her Wall Street ties by her opponent, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont."
...and it outlines plenty of pending BlackRock business before the next presidential administration.