There are three serious flaws in all the current proposals for campaign finance reform. First, none of them will redress the growing crisis of political representation that leaves most poor and working Americans without an adequate voice in the country’s governance. Second, many of them include restrictions on how people can participate in the political system—restrictions that undermine the democracy they are supposedly designed to help save. And, finally, they all require the assent of Congress, or some other group of sitting politicians who, among all the people in the nation, have the least interest in changing the system.
The crisis of political representation is the cumulative effect of many factors. The corrupting influence of money on the political process has a part to play, but it is by no means the lead. After all, corruption has been a persistent concern to democrats since the beginning of the republic and yet for the most part each generation has somehow managed to muddle its way forward to a more democratic and more inclusive political system. Today’s crisis of representation runs deeper than money.
First, the continuing growth of the population and of the scale of government has increased the required span of political representation to the point of overload—the ratio of voters to elected representatives in the United States is among the highest in the world. There is no way that U.S. elected officials can attend to the concerns of everyone they are supposed to represent. Naturally enough, the politicians represent the interests they know, and those excluded from the informal mechanisms that determine who gets listened to rightly feel betrayed and abandoned.
Second, most Americans are still not equal before the law. Wage earners, for example, are routinely denied rights to freedom of association and free speech on the job that wealth holders take for granted. The fact that most of the money in politics comes from wealth holders and not from wage earners helps to explain why this inequality persists, but it is not the only nor even the most important explanation. Restricting the flow of political contributions or financing political campaigns with tax dollars will not ensure wage earners the equal protection of the law.
Finally, the rise of broadcast campaigning and celebrity politics has broken the institutional ties that once bound candidates to constituents in the established mass parties. Historically, political parties have depended on their grassroots membership to get out the vote much more than they do now. Elected officials and party leaders had to be much more directly responsive to the felt needs and interests of that membership. Money was still important. But there was no effective way to appeal over the heads of precinct leaders to the voters themselves. Local party structures helped ordinary Americans feel much more connected to the political system than all the focus groups, talk...
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