By David Moberg
Billionaires For Bush (Or Gore) - a clever spoof launched by United for a Fair Economy at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia - concisely nailed the upshot of our campaign finance system: Big Money United Will Never Be Defeated.
The money certainly has been rolling in for the Republicans, just as one might expect of a political party devoted to eliminating the estate tax. By early August contributions totaled a record $93 million for Bush, $155 million to the Republican Party, and even more to all the individual and group campaign committees. "Retired," mainly a euphemism for what used to be called "the idle rich," constituted the top "industry" contributing to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But the story playing out two weeks later at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles is much the same. Lawyers topped the list of industries among contributors to the Democrats (the party had raised $113 million and Gore $52 million at the beginning of August). But securities and investment, real estate and insurance were among the top half-dozen industries contributing to both parties. The Democrats tapped more from the entertainment and computer industries than the Republicans, but many corporations contributed equally big bucks to sponsor both conventions - including AT&T, General Motors, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard.
There is at least one major difference between the parties: Unions were among the Democrats' major contributors, but they gave very little to Republicans. Yet unions still have accounted for only about 10 percent of the Democratic Party's money. That's one reason why the Democrats are a weak version of a working-class party - even though if Gore wins this fall, he may receive nearly one-third of his votes from union households (see Working It,).
Money distorts politics, magnifying a million-fold the agenda of the rich, at least until the Supreme Court decision equating money and speech is overturned. It also narrows the spectrum of political choices and reduces the level of citizen participation in government. Ultimately, money's influence undermines democracy and deprives average citizens of power over their lives.
The corrupting force of money in politics is gradually gaining traction with the public, as indicated in Bill Bradley and John McCain's presidential primary campaigns, but even more so by the growing support for state initiatives for clean elections (see Cleaning Up). But the question of campaign finance reform was banished from the Republican Convention. The Democratic platform at least pledges support for the McCain-Feingold legislation and "publicly guaranteed TV time for debates and advocacy by candidates," but Gore's proposal to raise private funds for a "Democracy Endowment" to finance elections is a wimpy and pointless alternative to public financing.
Reducing the power of money in politics is an essential step toward revitalizing democracy, but it is not enough. The winner-take-all electoral system greatly reduces Americans' political choices, pushing candidates relentlessly toward the center. The country would benefit greatly by adopting systems of proportional representation, and the interest in new parties and independents, from Perot to Buchanan to Nader, suggests that many Americans of different political outlooks might rally to a new system that guarantees a voice for divergent and minority views.
Campaign and election reforms are needed not just to create a formally fairer democratic system, but also to shift the balance of power to citizens who are now socially weak and alienated. It is not simply the cleanliness of elections that's at stake. It is a question of whether citizens, especially the working-class majority, have the power through government to shape their own lives. It is ultimately a choice between democracy, or rule by the people, and our growing trend toward plutocracy, or rule by the rich.
David Moberg is a senior
editor of In These Times.
Election 2000 Coverage
Mind the Bollocks
Battle of Philadelphia
I'm Voting for Nader ...
And Why I'm Not
to Deal with Gore
Labor, Old Politics
Courts the Black Vote
Great Right Hope