The US political system has been completely broken my whole life. And for my whole life, nice liberals have been telling me the reason is that there’s too much money in politics. We need campaign finance reform to get the money out of politics, and all will be well.
I’m now convinced this is completely wrong. The problem isn’t that there’s much too much money in politics. It that there’s much too little.
Politics costs money. It always has and always will. Moreover, the money spent on elections may be the least important part. There’s also media, long-term party building, organizations outside of parties like MoveOn and the NRA, and “Impeach LBJ” buttons. Even if running for office cost nothing, progressives would still be at a profound disadvantage, because officeholders would be operating in an environment created by Big Money.
So what’s the answer? I’m convinced it’s for lots and lots of people to give little amounts of moneyâ€”not just to candidates, but to the whole machinery of politics.
Getting people to do that, of course, is the trick. But there’s a plausible solution. In William Greider’s book Who Will Tell the People, he suggests every US adult should get a government voucher for a certain amount of moneyâ€”say, $100â€”that they would be free to give to any political organization they want. This could be Mike Huckabee, or the ACLU, or a local soup kitchen, or even teeny-tiny websites named after something George Orwell said.
To put this in perspective, the 2008 presidential campaign will cost over $1 billion. That sounds like too much money in politics! But if all of America’s 200 million adults allocated their $100, that would be $20 billion spent on politics every year (not just every four). From that perspective, $1 billion sounds like much too little.
I’d welcome thoughts on this at my site, because I’m going to write a big piece soon about why this is important and how it might work. In the meantime, here’s an interesting paragraph from a new piece in the Atlantic about Barack Obama’s fearsome fundraising machinery:
In a sense, Obama represents a triumph of campaign-finance reform. He has not, of course, gotten the money out of politics, as many proponents of reform may have wished, and he will likely forgo public financing if he becomes the nominee. But he has realized the reformersâ€™ other big goal of ending the system whereby a handful of rich donors control the political process. He has done this not by limiting money but by adding much, much more of itâ€”democratizing the system by flooding it with so many new contributors that their combined effect dilutes the old guard to the point that it scarcely poses any threat. Goren berg says heâ€™s still often asked who the biggest fund-raisers are. He replies that it is no longer possible to tell. â€œAny one of them could wind up being huge,â€ he says, â€œbecause it no longer matters how big a check you can write; it matters how motivated you are to reach out to others.â€