It is hard to figure out what the stakes are in this year’s presidential election. “Compassionate conservatism” looks very much like a Republican version of the “third way,” and the third way looks more and more like a Democratic version of compassionate conservatism. It does matter, of course, who wins, for a Democratic victory, especially if it extends to Congress, opens the way for left initiatives of many different kinds, while a Republican victory means four more years of defensive politics. But high expectations aren’t likely to be the mark of election 2000. The most interesting questions, at this early point, have more to do with the process than with the possible outcome.
What does all the money mean? I am not sure that the people who give so much money to political candidates actually get what they presumably think they are paying for (I am skeptical in the same way about commercial advertising). But they must get something, and what they get must at least sometimes be tangible, else they wouldn’t keep writing checks.
What do the contributors want? They want attention most of all; they want to be kept in mind. They mostly understand that results can’t be guaranteed; the interests of wealthy contributors are sure to come into conflict with each other (even when the rest of us are out of the picture), and elected officials have to decide on a kind of political triage. But attention is sufficiently important, especially when you think about what it means never to be attended to by political leaders. And if contributors are turned down on this or that request, they expect the officeholders they helped elect to say something like this: “Look, I can’t do whatever-it-is for you; there are too many other factors involved; and too many journalists are watching, so it isn’t even prudent. But, down the road, I will do something else for you.”
Whether contributors get everything they want or not, now or later, their money corrupts the democratic system. The corrupting effects intensify as campaigns get more and more expensive and contributions increase to match the expenses. Defenders of the status quo argue that corporate wealth has no greater influence here than in countries that finance elections with tax money. I suspect that private interests are better served here—and served more quickly and quietly. But, whether that is true or not, the disillusionment with politics, which is one of the effects of all the getting and spending, is certainly greater here. In this television age, the gifts of time and energy that ordinary citizens can bring never seem to balance the gifts of wealth—which may help to account for the steady withdrawal of ordinary citizens from the political arena.
Is it an advantage that money is now spent on campaign expenses rather than (as it used to be) on bribing candidates? Well, this indirect path requires more money, which may be good for the economy; it pay...
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