Making the Worms SquirmEach day of my walk for campaign finance reform I have met Americans who are frustrated to tears--sometimes real tears--over the condition of our democracy. Some have nearly given up hope.
But we can solve this problem if we will take time to understand it. The campaign finance reform problem is a problem of scale. The question before us is: How do we return politics to the human scale? How do we remove from democracy's meeting room the rude and overscaled monstrosities that increasingly--with their unlimited cash and power--shout down the voices of individuals?
If we are to be a self-governing nation, we must remove from our politics the synthetic, self-serving voice of the corporation. This is not my idea. It is a Republican idea, and I happen to agree with it. Here is what that happy Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, said in 1910:
Our government, national and state, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics. That is one of our tasks today. ... The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being. There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.
So said Teddy Roosevelt. He did, in fact, push corporations out of politics, and they stayed out for three-quarters of a century. Now they have wormed their way back, and America needs to take a few worm pills. Here is what I think those pills must do:
First, we need to get soft money out of our elections with a federal law. A minority of senators didn't want to take their medicine in October when they killed the McCain-Feingold bill in Washington. So we will have to make them take their pill when they come home for re-election. If they won't get soft money out of the system--and they have turned down opportunities to do so for four years in a row--then it is simply time for us to get them out of the system.
There is no question but that the soft-money ban is moving toward passage. Each year, a few more votes come our way. We will see victory in 2000 or 2001 if we keep at it, which we will. We will "get the $100,000 check out of politics," to use Sen. McCain's phrase.
In the short term, I think continuous, forceful action is needed in the Senate. The McCain-Feingold bill needs to be attached to every big bill until it gets to the floor, where it does have the votes.
The second great pill that we must take is to enact the public financing of our elections, beginning with local and state elections, and working our way up to federal elections.
When I was a young girl, the townspeople would gather around to hear speeches in the park. No one minded if the town paid for the stage or the refreshments. The running of a democracy requires that we all find out everything we can about each candidate. If today's public speaking platforms are the television and the radio, then let's use them as public platforms indeed. The sooner we enable candidates to approach the public directly, without the necessity of ingratiating themselves to the monied interests, then the sooner we will return politics to the human scale where it belongs.
As to major reforms that can be achieved by activists, there is no question that the public financing of campaigns is a movement that will revolutionize state and local elections over the first two decades of the coming century. By midcentury, most members of Congress will have cut their teeth in publicly financed campaigns, and will be ready to vote for public financing at the federal level. We need to move all that along as quickly as possible. Four states have public funding, and I think we will start adding more with each election cycle.
There is a third pill which, if we take it first, may make the second pill easier to take. We need to reassert the public's rights of ownership over the airwaves, and convert that right to free political advertising. Candidates who want to use the free ads need to agree to keep their campaigns short and inexpensive on other fronts. The National Association of Broadcasters hates this idea and has killed it in Congress time and again, but I think we can do it, and I think the members of Congress will like it, if we can keep the broadcasters off their backs. We can do that with local action attacking on a number of fronts.
We also need to make campaign finance reform an issue in the presidential campaigns, which former Sen. Bradley and Sen. John McCain are properly doing.
Now, I have a fourth pill I think we need to take to get the worms of big money out of our democracy. It is this: The press needs to do a much better job of covering campaigns. We need more debates, with proper promotion so people will watch. We need issue-oriented coverage. We need to let the human beings who run for office have the privacy of their personal lives, and we must stop taking up valuable news time with tidbits about their bedroom habits instead of public issues.
Pretending that we must know everything so we may judge their characters is a phony pretext for the worst kind of salacious, yellow journalism. It is covered because it is easier for downsized news organizations to cover, not because it is useful information in a democracy. The fact is, the people who have enough energy to run for high public office have enough energy for a lot of other activities, and there is no sense in trying to keep up with them. Let them enjoy life. If it will keep them from starting wars, let's get them all girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever they need.
It will, of course, be hard to get the press to behave. News organizations are being merged, and newsrooms and stories are being dumbed-down and shortened to almost worthless summaries. There are some excellent newspapers left in America, but they are fewer all the time. There are almost no good local television news departments. They have become an embarrassment to our nation.
The Internet, of course, is a brand-new medium for news, and it has great promise. Stories can be written as long as you like, and coverage can be provided for the small-scale, small-town items that get pushed out of the larger papers and TV broadcasts. This medium holds real promise for a democracy, and it may flourish as the television stations and newspapers cut their own throats with poor quality and cheap-shot coverage of celebrity non-news.
And finally, we Americans have to take the fifth pill ourselves. We have to do a better job individually of taking time for our communities, and taking responsibility for our self-governance--including making small contributions to the leaders we respect. We must not be content to go home and watch television when there is a democracy to run, or to spend all our money on ourselves and our children. Right now, many young people will tell you to "get a life" if you suggest that they get involved in community issues. But that is a life. That is the life of free people in a democracy.
Maybe it will take a close call before more Americans take responsibility for their government. Corporations, after all, could indeed take over our democracy. People could be so overworked--so brainwashed into spending themselves into the slavery of debt--that they become like soulless robots. But I don't think it will happen. As a nation, we are genetically self-selected as rebels and adventurers. We will not strain under the yoke of oppression very long.
But we have work ahead of us. We have some medicine to take, and to give. But what is life for, if not to spend in the worthy battles--the great issues? We live in a land where each person's voice matters. We can all do something. Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices to be heard. But it is still our free land and, my, how we all do love it.