The shallow cynicism of "everything is rigged"

The contemporary scandal, it is often said, is not that criminal corruption occurs but rather that the political system is legally rigged. It supposedly takes the form of campaign contributions that, Mr. Sanders says, enable corporations to “literally buy elections.” This is, literally, false. Money unquestionably influences elections. But the candidate with the most votes, a commodity that cannot be legally bought or sold, always wins (except when it comes to the presidency, a discussion for another day).

What Mr. Sanders means to say, of course, is that money allows those with an opinion on, or a stake in, a given issue to buy the means of persuading voters that the spenders are right. That was what he meant when, in the second Democratic presidential debate, he defended his single-payer health insurance proposal and warned darkly — although how surprising was it, really? — that private health insurers had purchased advertising time during the program to register their disagreement.

But this “buys” elections only to the extent Mr. Sanders is claiming voters are passive automatons incapable of discernment. This is a paternal populism according to which voters need politicians to protect them from being duped by ensuring they are never spoken to in the first place.