Money. The mother’s milk of politics, the real third rail of politicians. Without it a politician is powerless, and the more one has the more power one has as well. Sort of.
By now it is obvious that inflation is rising, at least in political campaigns. The price only gets higher with each election. And so does the need to raise more money. Inevitably this means asking for big checks from big people, who (business people that the are, regardless of their formal business) expect something in return. The politician in turn pays a double price – the promise made to the giver and the betrayal of the actual voters whose interests are not served by the politician who elected him/her.
Money is also the lifeblood of government, which is why it is so important to both liberals and conservatives. Liberals want government to do things, and that requires money. Conservatives want government to stop doing things, and that requires depriving it of money. Ironically, each confirms the dread of the other. Any wonder we are stuck?
How to get unstuck then? Here are three ideas.
1. Take the money out of campaigns, or at least make it less powerful. I mentioned this last time, suggesting that we limit campaign length and the amount of media time it consumes.
Wait! Doesn’t that constrain free speech? Yes, but so does Robert’s Rules or just raising your hand in school. When groups deliberate, and an election is a deliberation, there need to be ground rules like taking turns and sharing time and answering questions and so on. The right to speak does not extend to the right to do all the speaking, or even a majority of it, or to speak anonymously or unaccountably. Whenever the president makes a speech, be it a Saturday radio address or the State of the Union, the other party gets to respond. That’s fair. Why should campaigns to win those offices be any less fair?
2. Publish tax returns of all federal and state elected officials, including the year they first run for that office. Those who ask for the people’s confidence should be will to show they are worthy of it. We think it acceptable to poke around in their sex lives, but in reality their financial lives are more germane.
Peter Parker’s uncle famously said, “With great power power comes great responsibility,” and that means being held responsible. Between elections how shall the citizens know their officials are being honest? Showing their stake, their relative wealth and poverty, is part of being accountable for their actions. If you can’t explain your tax return to the voters, chances are that you are not someone they would elect if they knew.
3. Make all advocacy groups and other PAC-like objects reveal who supports them and how much. No anonymous politicking. Democracy requires sunlight to live. When campaigns are being funded and aided by groups with innocuous names (Americans for Progress, for example) that conceal both their mission and their supporters, democracy becomes impossible.
Texas Governor Perry has made much of his Boy Scout experience, which I celebrate as a former Boy Scout and the father of two scouts including an Eagle Scout. The first word of the Scout Law is ‘Trustworthy.’ American politicians have lost the trust of the people. To regain it requires making amends by being more accountable, more transparent.
These are three easy steps. Let’s see a show of hands.