Democratic politics in my version of utopia looks different from Michael Walzer’s version in at least one way. When thousands of energetic citizens take part in a presidential or congressional campaign, they might help organize a rally, update a web site, pass out leaflets, or clean up headquarters, but they would not get on the phone to ask for money. Public funds would pay for political campaigns. The contests would be blissfully short, intense, and economically efficient. Television stations would “donate” air time for serious debate. Democracy—including the grassroots participatory kind—would be better off.
Of course, former fat-cat power brokers would miss private fund-raising; they would no longer be able to buy candidates and shape government policies. That’s the purpose of public financing. But Michael Walzer says he, too, would miss private fund-raising. He believes grassroots involvement would decline and citizens would lose an important way of indicating the intensity of their support. In his ideal world, he would like to see resources “more or less equally distributed among individuals” and privately funded campaigns.
I don’t understand why Walzer sets up the solution to the corruption of American democracy as an either/or proposition: “We can deal with corruption . . . by radically reducing the inequality and tolerating the private financing or by tolerating the inequality and banning the political use of private money.” A decent American democracy clearly needs both to reduce inequality and get the private money out of elections. The two go together because a society that remains free and democratic will never achieve a distribution of wealth so equal and so stable as to make the political use of private money unproblematic.
Leftists of the democratic type share a basic definition of the good society: true equality of opportunity. This presupposes equal access to quality health care, education, affordable housing, jobs, pensions, safety-net programs, a clean environment, and so on. Such a profoundly radical vision assumes a commensurately radical redistribution of wealth and restructuring of the economy.
All the while, people in a true democracy are free to make choices: some will be more interested in earning money than others; some will love running a business, others will want to make art; some will be inclined to save their pennies, others won’t; some will succeed in their endeavors, others will fail. A progressive tax system and a strong public sector prevent inequalities from increasing to anything even remotely resembling the indecent levels we have today. Moreover, sharp disparities in wealth won’t be passed on from generation to generation. Yet enough inequality will remain to corrupt the political process if campaigns are privately funded.
BARRED FROM fund-raising, will citizens languish at home during campaigns, suffocated by a behemoth state which forbids ba...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.