Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Out With The Big And In With The Small

Most regular people are feeling helpless if not hopeless when it comes to the commanding influence of money in politics. Different people call what we have now different things, but mostly agree it's not much of a democracy so long as power is concentrated in so few hands. At least as far as election financing goes, our system qualifies as a plutocracy (government of, by and for the rich). Some might say we have a kakistocracy (government by the worst and most unprincipled people). Or maybe a kleptocracy (government run by thieves).

Word play aside, the reality of today's politics is that money does not talk, it screams. And the root of the money problem is that there is so much of it and it comes from so few.

Part of what caused our current mess is systematic neglect and malpractice by elected officials who refuse to acknowledge much less repair obsolete campaign finance rules and anti-corruption laws. Another part of the cause is that the Supreme Court took a look at 45 of the most important words ever written and decided that when those words were penned two centuries earlier the authors must have meant "money" when they used the word "speech" and really meant "corporations" when they said "people."

Over the long haul, anyone who believes in democracy has a duty to do what it takes to make sure these rulings end up in the trash bin of history where they belong. But that will likely take decades. In the meantime, there is much that can and must be done to work around the legal nonsense foisted on us by the Supremes and, in so doing, make political power less concentrated and more widely dispersed.

One way to do that is to insist on long-overdue updates to ethics laws that once protected the public from government corruption but no longer do so. Another way is to press for new laws enhancing corporate accountability and protecting shareholder rights, like the state legislation proposed last session and supported by the Democracy Campaign. If the Supreme Court is going to treat things as human beings and allow those things to spend unlimited amounts on elections, then the things should have to notify the human beings  namely investors  who supply them with capital and should have to get the investors' permission to use their money this way.

But the most important short-term treatment for the sickness that has been visited on us and our democracy involves direct intervention in how the money flows. Again, the root of the money problem is there is so much of it and it comes from so few. For the time being, the courts are insisting that money flow freely and all but a handful of elected lawmakers are doing nothing to challenge the judges. So until sanity returns, all spigots have to be opened wide. In which case, we need more spigots. To be more precise, we need to make sure that all the money is not pouring out of a few enormous spigots.

Put another way, we can fight big money with small money.

A small donor empowerment plan was just introduced in Congress, and the Democracy Campaign has proposed a reform plan based on the same model for state elections here in Wisconsin. The idea is simple. Make small donations worth a lot more than they are worth today. Give candidates a strong reason – and a big reward – for seeking small contributions from the local communities they want to represent. And hence give more people a reason to believe that making a small contribution will actually make a difference.

If the incentives provided by the public matching programs in our plan and the one just proposed in Congress could convince as little as 5% of the population to make small political donations, big money could be replaced by small money in our elections.

For years now, politicians of every stripe have embraced the old idiom "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and surrendered to the concentrated power of the few in our society who can afford to pump massive amounts of money into the political process. We have it within our power to put a subversive twist on that idiom. If you can't stop 'em, outnumber 'em.


Anonymous said...

With the Internet, seeking small donations has never been easier or more doable. The power of the Web is what makes it possible for a small-donor approach to work.

Anonymous said...

how do you control business owners who offer employees $50 to make a $25 donation to a candidate they ask for? is this preventable?

Mike McCabe said...

What you describe is money laundering. That is already a crime. Wisconsin & Southern Railroad CEO William Gardner was caught doing that and was convicted on felony charges.