For those who believe that American democracy is at a crisis point, there is no more vivid example than Minnesota, where comedian Al Franken has launched a full-throated effort to unseat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. It is fast-food politics at its artery-clogging worst: instant gratification and no nutritional value. Yet, Franken has both personal wealth and a host of wealthy donors at his call — pushing out virtually all competitors. While Minnesota has long prided itself on favoring underdogs, the day may have passed when an idea-rich, cash-poor candidate can secure a major office.
Democracy becomes a noble lie when money bars most citizens from elective office. Candidates must now pony up millions to have a chance for statewide office, creating a type of oligarchy where offices are restricted to a small elite. The closing of politics to most citizens has profound implications for the country. There was a time when politics attracted certifiable geniuses such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Daniel Webster.
The threshold barriers to new voices entering our political process were evident during a recent conversation that I had with Nobel Prize winner Peter Agre. A Minnesota native, Agre revealed his interest in running but said he was told by state politicos that, in opposing Franken, he is a day late and a dollar short — well, $9 million to be specific. That was the amount that he would need to be “credible.” Despite a lack of money, Agre still intends to run as either a Democrat or independent.
The $9 million could prove a conservative estimate. The average cost of the 10 most expensive Senate campaigns doubled in four years from $17 million in 2002 to almost $35 million in 2006. The 2008 presidential campaigns have already triggered their own records. In the 2000 Senate race in Minnesota, lawyer Mike Ciresi (who is also running in 2008) put up $5 million of his own money in his losing bid.
To win, a candidate needs buzz and bucks, and Franken — who has raised $1.4 million as mere seed money — has an endless supply of both. He thrilled bored voters by calling Coleman “one of the administration’s leading butt boys.”
Conversely, Agre does not have much to put on the table beyond a Nobel Prize for chemistry and global work on behalf of academic freedom. In today’s politics, that gives him about the same odds as Albert Schweitzer running against Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Of course, brilliance is no guarantee that Agre would make a good senator, and he would have to prove that he could appeal to people beyond Minnesota Mensa members. Nonetheless, there is something fundamentally wrong when a man such as Agre is considered political roadkill. Even in a state that once embraced underdog candidates such as professional wrestler Jesse Ventura (who became governor) and college professor Paul Wellstone (the late U.S. senator), money now confines politics to the ranks of rich personalities and robotic functionaries.
Obviously, money has long played a great role in politics. But the exponential rise in campaign costs belies the popular notion that anyone can become president or senator in this country.
Except for his lack of money, Agre would appear the perfect candidate. Besides instantly doubling the IQ of the Senate, Agre would be the first Nobel Prize winner for science to be elected to Congress. While the Senate has been Nobel-free for more than six decades, he would join three prior senators and one vice president (the president of the Senate) who received Nobel Peace Prizes.
Born in Minnesota and a former Eagle Scout to boot, Agre seems to have walked off the set of A Prairie Home Companion: milking cows in the summer and eating lutefisk in the winter — a vile codfish soaked in lye that only a snow-crazed Norwegian can swallow with success. Part of a large farming and working-class family, Agre went to Theodore Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis (with another student named James Janos — later known as Jesse Ventura). His father was the chairman of the chemistry department at St. Olaf College. Growing up, Linus Pauling — two-time Nobel laureate for chemistry and peace — stayed at their home, unaware that the gangly kid running around would inherit his Nobel Prize 49 years later.
Agre’s announcement would create a wild contrast for Minnesota voters. On one side, there is Franken, whose contributions to humanity include such books as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. On the other side is Agre, who has quietly served medicine and human rights for decades around the world. His published works include scientific breakthroughs credited for having “ushered in a golden age of biochemical, physiological and genetic studies … at the molecular level.”
Agre could present an equally sharp contrast with Coleman on issues such as stem cells. Coleman has often discussed his tragic loss of two children to a rare genetic disorder as shaping his opposition to most stem cell research. Agre’s loss of his 3-month-old daughter, Lydia, to cerebral palsy helped shape his views in favor of such research.
The question is whether Agre will have a chance to make his case. The Man from Mensa could be the ultimate test of whether merit still plays a significant role in U.S. politics or whether money alone dictates our choice of leaders.
Of course, the very notion of a Nobel laureate joining the less-than-cerebral ranks of the U.S. Senate is something too much to hope for. It would be a scene reminiscent of when John F. Kennedy welcomed Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 and observed, “Never has there been so much collective intelligence in this room, since Jefferson dined here alone.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.