Generating political action from private resources poses some sticky problems for the democratic left. We value grassroots political action—so we like the idea of electoral campaigns and other forms of politicking as populist, participatory activities. But we also deplore the massive inequalities of American society—inequalities of wealth, and hence of all the things that money can buy. In America, that is a lot of things, and political results are obviously among them. Often it looks as though the values of participatory politics and those of creating a level political playing field run in a collision course.
But in fact, the choices are not so stark. One can imagine many innovative arrangements that would countervail against the corrupting role of money in political campaigns, while actually enhancing popular participation.
Contests over the role of money in these settings are largely struggles over information—conflicts about what information will be accessible to the public, when, how, and under what auspices. Money would not matter nearly so much in American politics if there were alternatives to high-priced media time as means for conveying information to citizens. The “free market” now prevailing in public communications favors those with the big bucks required to monopolize public attention. The problem is to break that monopoly.
As in many another domain, the “freedom” afforded by today’s markets in public communication is spurious. But these markets are not part of some natural order of things. With the right political will, legislation could foster new, and vastly more democratic, markets of political ideas.
Consider the presidential primaries. Here the distorting role of big money is widely acknowledged. Campaigns are wastefully long. Worse, the political possibilities presented to most of the nation’s voters are apt to be determined by which candidate can accumulate the biggest bankroll for the February contest in the tiny and atypical state of New Hampshire. By the time most voters get to express their wishes (if indeed they ever do) the terms of public debate will likely have been set by whoever succeeds in establishing early “momentum” in this special contest.
BUT IMAGINE a radically different set of ground rules for presidential nominations—a two-stage, nationwide primary system. Funding for participation in this primary would be limited to contributions from individual citizens—excluding businesses and all other organizations—with a strict maximum of $1,000 per contributor. Other donations could consist only of citizens’ labors. Government subsidies, if permitted, would be in direct proportion to these private contributions.
Note the far-reaching significance of limiting campaign funds to individual contributions. A step like this would obviously curtail the political clout of America’s most powerful institutions—General Motors, the Amer...
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