Andy Schmookler: The biggest bargain around
Would it be possible for any American leader to persuade the American people about how much better off we’d all be if we had publicly financed elections?
It’s a notion many people resist, declaring they wouldn’t want to have to pay taxes to fund elections. They imagine it would mean more money out of their pockets. But to think that way is to be penny wise and pound foolish. Switching to public financing would be the greatest bargain the American people have ever had.
Right now, it’s the special interests who get the huge bargain.
Twice I’ve computed the “return on investment” some big moneyed interests received for their donations to politicians. Once was in the 1990s, when a big federal communications bill gave away additional broadcast spectrum to media companies. To gain the politicians’ help in giving them something worth billions, these interests had contributed mere millions.
The other was in Virginia, where Dominion Power recently got the state legislature to allow it an accounting trick that has enabled the company to keep money that should be returned to its customers. Dominion – the largest donor to Virginia state legislators – had given mere thousands to get the politicians to give them millions.
In each case, the moneyed interests got $1,000 for every $1 they donated to the politicians who then did their bidding. No other investment in the world gives a 1,000 to 1 return like buying politicians!
But their gain means our loss. Our politicians’ dependency on big donors – for their election and re-election — results in the transfer of wealth from the people in general to powerful private interests.
But we’re losing more than dollars. We’re losing our democracy.
The American system of government is based on the idea that every citizen is entitled to an equal voice. But, as our market economy produces unequal distribution of wealth, an election system that allows private wealth to be translated into political power erodes that fundamental principle of American government.
Democracy (rule by the people) becomes plutocracy (rule by wealth).
Nothing in recent times has accelerated our decline into plutocracy more than the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. In that decision, five justices who have repeatedly shown allegiance to the corporate system pretended that unlimited private money flowing into the election process has no corrupting influence.
So it’s good news that one of our political parties (Democratic) and one of our presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton) are calling for Citizens United to be overturned. In a welcome move, Hillary has gone so far as to say that, if we can’t get the court to overturn that disgraceful decision, she would promote a constitutional amendment to do the job.
But just overturning Citizens United would be far from enough to restore the people’s control over their government: even before that disgraceful decision was handed down, the problem of the people’s voice being drowned out by money power was already huge. Which is why a good constitutional amendment should be put on the table from the outset. It could start the conversation America needs about what true democracy requires when it comes to money and elections. It would create the opportunity for the candidate (or for the new president) to educate the electorate on how much the American people would benefit – economically and politically – from a wholly publicly financed election system.
What I’d like to see proposed is a system in which private money continued to enjoy full First Amendment protections in all areas except for the election process. Elections are special because giving all citizens an equal voice in the election process is fundamental to our system of government.
According to this proposal, every registered voter would be given a voucher for a certain number of dollars. These dollars – and only these dollars — could be spent only in the election process. Each registered voter would be enabled to distribute those voucher funds to whatever candidate, party, and/or interest group he or she wishes to empower for the election.
For elections, every citizen would command equal resources. Politicians would no longer have to spend half their time on the phone courting billionaires and giant corporations. The vital principle of “one person, one vote” would no longer be swamped by “one dollar, one vote.”
Would proposing this be good politics? I don’t know, for it is unclear whether any political leader can succeed in showing the American people how much it is in their interest to change our campaign finance system so that people-power rather than money-power rules.
But I’d like to see it tried.
Andy Schmookler is an award-winning author, and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012. His newly published book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – And How We Can Defeat It.”