While almost everyone thinks our current political system is corrupt, there are still too many influential people who like it that way.
Six degrees of ruination
In a recent Kathleen Dunn show on Wisconsin Public Radio, her two guests made a lively, lucid presentation on the two pretty much mutually exclusive “ideal” campaign financing proposals that are competing (unfairly, as will soon be obvious) for the hearts and minds of a somnolent public.
The primary objective of the position espoused by spokesman for the bevy of “reform” organizations at state and national levels is direct or indirect public financing so that the money needed to pay for increasingly expensive media driven campaigns will come from subsidized small donors or the government directly. Doable. The secondary goal is to expose and, to the limited extent possible, regulate and suppress the participation of non candidates and organizations in the election itself. Harder.
The market position is a no holds, no spending limits, unregulated free-for-all in which anyone and everyone, including the candidates themselves, can contribute and spend without disclosing where the money for campaigns and campaign advertising comes from.
Neither of the guests had a kind word for the current patchwork design where (1) candidates, parties, and other “official” participants must reveal money sources and where contribution limits are imposed on those money sources and (2) outside organizations and people and self-funding candidates themselves are pretty much unrestrained in how much they collect and spend and what or who they spend it on.
The proponents of the regulated idea are:
1. The voters who say they are tired of all the commercials, the nonstop campaigns, and are also beginning to wonder who their representatives are really representing.
2. Editorial page editors and writers who view the excessive spending their news editors are featuring with distaste and alarm.
3. All those reform organizations and their members and contributors.
The proponents of the market position are:
1. Donors to political campaigns, causes, candidates and businesses who are buying favor or being extorted by those whose favor they (or the lobbyists advising them) seek.
2. Unions whose ardor for free market participation has dwindled as their funding system has come under attack, but who have traditionally wanted the freedom to raise and spend campaign money without inhibitions.
3. Politicians themselves. Republicans ideologically, Democrats more advantageously, both fearful of offending their friends with money.
4. Courts whose judges protect freedom of speech, especially the Supreme Court Professionals who are paid to run these expensive campaigns.
5. TV station owners who need the money the professionals spend on media.
6. All kinds of organizations with causes and money, from social to economic to self-aggrandizing, who want to influence voters to favor candidates who favor these causes.
The streets are filling up with protesters who have little in common except the belief that they are being ignored by the people who were elected to represent them.
Meanwhile, proponents of term limits and part-time legislators hope that incumbents who can no longer make careers of public service or who have to support themselves with real jobs will be less rascally than the rascals they will replace.
Along with this rising tide of discontent are polls showing single-digit approval ratings for the Congress and for politics itself.
All of this leads one to hope that people are beginning to wonder whether the system is broken, whether representative government itself is at risk.
The question is whether anyone who is running for office has the same kind of misgivings.
The road to change will go through the candidates who will be elected this year. So far none of them are even talking about any of the ideas the participants in the Kathleen Dunn talked about.
Isn’t it time to put the concerns about the future of representative government and the way we elect our representatives on the short agenda?
January 17, 2012
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Bill Kraus lives in Madison, is the former press secretary for Governor Lee Dreyfus, and serves on the board of Common Cause of Wisconsin.