All political systems are subject to corruption, but not to the same kind of corruption. The corruptions of American democracy are determined by two things: the radically unequal distribution of wealth in our society and the private financing of political campaigns. We can deal with corruption, then, in two different ways: by radically reducing the inequality and tolerating the private financing or by tolerating the inequality and banning the political use of private money.
I have always preferred the first of these options, a preference that derives in part from my experience of left politics, where we are continually raising money from friends and comrades and judging the strength of their commitment by their readiness to contribute to the cause. We also ask for time and energy, but working people, especially working people with children, don’t always have time and energy to spare. A little bit of money ties them to us: it is a sign and a bond.
The case is the same in politics more generally. Time, energy, and money are signs of intensity; they are the media with which we signal to our fellow citizens that this issue or candidate or party means a lot to us, more than a mere vote can indicate. However strongly we feel, we can only “spend” one vote, but we can divide our time, apportion our energy, contribute our money in differentiated ways, which reflect our precise judgments of importance and value. A democratic system ought to be able to register these different judgments, and that requires that just as voting is a private and individual matter, so should contributions be private and individual.
But this will only work as an antidote to corruption if resources are more or less equally distributed among individuals. And that is a fantasy in America today. So the alternative, which is at least a little less fantastic, is public funding of all political campaigns. I think of this as a second-best option because it reduces the possibilities for political participation. The more the state is involved, the less people are likely to act on their own. Even contributions of time and energy will drop, since one of the main activities that require such contributions is fund-raising. Think of the endless parties, benefits, bake sales, raffles, mass mailings, telephone marathons through which money is raised for politics (as for religious institutions, charities, and so on). This is participatory financing, and of course it is eclipsed when the very rich buy themselves a senator (or a president). But won’t it also be eclipsed when the state funds everyone’s campaign?
BUT OF those last two possible campaign funders, the very rich or the democratic state, we have to choose the second. The courting of the very rich by democratic politicians is obscene (and the obscenity is worse when the politicians are Democrats, because Democrats—no doubt this is a myth but it has sometimes been a useful myth—are supposed to rep...
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