April 22, 2005
The citizen politician: an endangered species
By Bill Kraus
Once upon a time in Wisconsin citizen politicians were the dominant force in elective politics. This group had its own special interests, of course, that placed it somewhere on the left-to-right spectrum, but its main interest was the general interest and in putting good people in office who would give the state a government that worked for the state and all the people in it.
The citizen politicians dominated the political parties and were heavily involved in candidate campaigns as well, serving as fund raisers, foot soldiers, and campaign managers.
The special interest groups and individuals who participated in either party organizations or candidate campaigns or both were welcome but were mostly marginalized. A Republican candidate who brushed off business people or a Democratic candidate who ignored organized labor probably wouldn't last long. But neither candidates nor parties were dominated by any of the special interests no matter how broad.
When politics became marketing, when political parties lost their role of financing and slating candidacies, when money became the most important factor in high profile campaigns, the citizen politicians' points of entry disappeared, and they became consumers, spectators in a game that was in the hands of professionals. It was not exactly "go away, you bother me," but it was close. It was more like "We want your money and if your name on our letterhead resonates beyond your immediate family, we will take that too, but we are looking mostly to organized special interest wedges for energy and votes."
The citizen politician became politically homeless.
A lot of sociological factors have played into this turn of events and I have no idea how to resurrect a system that was dominated by what were skilled amateurs. I do think, though, that putting limits on the amount of money being spent on political campaigning has possibilities.
For one thing, it might starve the campaign industry beast. For another, it might reduce the alienation and scorn that has led to lower and lower voting percentages. And, the law of unintended consequences being what it is, it might even make the amateurs, the citizen politicians important enough contributors to political success to lure them back in to the only game for adults again.
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