Fighting big money in government and society
by Thad Williamson
Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 2000
Nearly 160 years ago a young German journalist wrote, "Politics
is in principle superior to the power of money, but in practice
it has become its slave." Millions of Americans today would
agree-even if they would recoil at the thought of siding with
Karl Marx on anything. Though the influence of moneyed interests
over legislative outcomes is often much subtler than Marx's "slave"
metaphor suggests, the pursuit of public office has never been
more closely tied to the pursuit of private financing. On May
24, the Democratic National Committee staged a soft-money fund-raiser
in Washington where corporate executives paid up to $500,000 for
such perks as dinner with President Clinton. The overall take-for
a single night-was over $26 million.
The reaction of many to the big-money influence has been "enough
is enough!" Campaign-finance reform efforts have sprung up
all over the United States. In several states, these movements
have won reform measures based on the public financing of political
campaigns. While the lasting impact of such measures remains to
be seen, the success of these movements speaks well of Americans'
desire for a more genuinely democratic political system.
As important as campaign finance is, however, it is only one
thread among many binding American democracy to powerful economic
interests. The most important source of big-money power over American
politics, in fact, is not candidates' dependence on private funds
to run their campaigns, but the government's dependence on private
economic actors to run the economy. The influence of money on
politics is less the cause than the effect of a political-economic
system in which capital controls jobs, investment, and prosperity.
Campaign-finance reform alone, no matter how successful, is therefore
but a first step in the struggle to expand democratic self-governance
THE MEDIA LOOPHOLE
Since the 1970s, most critical attention regarding the role
of corporations in politics has rightly focused on political action
committees (PACs) and the flow of unlimited "soft money"
donations from corporations to the major parties. Yet even if
PACs could be dismantled and the soft-money tap turned off, however,
businesses would have little problem broadcasting their point
of view loud and clear- via the "issue ad."
The issue ad is already a prominent part of the corporate
political toolbox. Corporations (or corporate-sponsored "citizens'
organizations") run ads which do not mention specific candidates,
but which are designed (and often timed) to boost the fortunes
of a favored candidate. Full public financing of elections would
not prevent big business from running issue ads, either to influence
an election or to shape public opinion on a particular policy
question. The medical industry's "Harry and Louise"
ad campaign-which provoked fears about government-controlled health
care, helping to defeat the Clinton health-care plan-suggests
what would happen (probably on a much larger scale) if big money
were blocked from influencing politicians directly.
In principle, this situation could be ameliorated by action
on the federal level. Advocates like Green Party candidate Ralph
Nader have long linked campaign-finance reform with media reform.
Possible steps may include reversing the trend towards media conglomeration
(restoring restrictions on ownership of multiple media outlets),
reviving the "Fairness Doctrine" (requiring media networks,
in exchange for the use of the public airwaves, to grant all sides
"equal time"), and promoting public and community broadcasting.
Of course, even modest measures in this direction are certain
to provoke hostility from entrenched media interests. Far-reaching
reform will undoubtedly require a struggle as protracted as the
one over campaign finance itself.
BORN TO RULE
Today, most "credible" candidates for national office
come from the most affluent, best-educated, and best-connected
segments of American society. The 435 members of the House of
Representatives include 145 with law degrees and 65 more with
at least one graduate degree. In the past decade, former lawyers
and business people have totaled about 75% of the House and 85%
of the Senate. Of the 100 U.S. Senators, 25 have degrees from
Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. Furthermore, an "accomplished"
career in business, law, or government is at present widely viewed
as the pre
requisite for political credibility. Only once in the last
35 years have there been as many as six former labor leaders in
the House at one time. No former labor leaders have been in the
Senate since 1966.
Even under the best possible campaign-finance laws, the well-educated
and well-heeled would enjoy significant built-in advantages in
congressional campaigns (especially in Senate races). Even if
they could no longer draw campaign contributions from wealthy
friends, aspiring politicians would still benefit from elite connections.
All the assets necessary for a campaign team-legal acumen, business
and accounting skills, logistical expertise, media savvy, etc.-are
more accessible to well-connected individuals than to ordinary
people. Studies show that affluent Americans are more likely than
others not only to make campaign contributions, but also to work
on political campaigns or belong to political organizations.
To be sure, class and social status do not always determine
political stance. However, the institutions through which political
careers are built-the professions (especially law), business and
industry, the mass media, and the military-all shape future elected
officials (and unelected policymakers). Along the way, most rising
politicians accumulate pro-establishment perspectives as well
as debts to their career benefactors. Sometimes, they learn hard
lessons about the costs of challenging big business. After timber
interests and other segments of the Arkansas establishment played
a major role in ousting Bill Clinton as governor in 1980, he tempered
his youthful liberalism and pledged not to antagonize big business.
His transformation soon vaulted him back into the governor's mansion
and on his way to the White House. Since becoming president, Clinton
has largely championed business interests. Political realities
forced him to abandon the more progressive elements of his 1992
"Putting People First" agenda.
Public financing of elections may enlarge the candidate pool
beyond those with the personal connections (or personal means)
to put together a "war chest" of hundreds of thousands
of dollars. Perhaps we would see a wider range of representatives
from the middle class- more soccer moms and college teachers and
fewer business lawyers-in Congress under public financing of elections.
At the local level, the impact of campaign reform on the demographics
of candidates is likely to be much more dramatic, as early evidence
from clean election states like Maine and Vermont suggests. It
remains to be seen, however, whether local office holders with
activist backgrounds will be able to make credible runs for higher
TREMORS AND EARTHQUAKES
In the most optimistic scenario, a less money-driven political
system might allow activists to push the Democratic Party, now
as corporate-dominated as the GOP, back into the hands of its
rank-and-file constituencies. Perhaps it would also open the door
for third parties on the left, parties that don't have a billionaire
patron. Over the last two centuries, however, only periods of
extraordinary social crisis-such as the coming of the Civil War
or the Great Depression-have vaulted progressive (in U.S. terms)
coalitions to national power. Without a comparable social crisis,
electoral reform alone is unlikely to trigger a fundamental restructuring
of American politics, or to bring a progressive coalition to national
Even if such a coalition came to power, it would (like FDR's
New Deal) still face the structural obstacles which bias the political
system towards business and impede comprehensive reform. (Roosevelt
saw many of his initiatives struck down by a conservative Supreme
Court. He also took it upon himself, in order to maintain the
support of some businessmen, to shoot down a first-term bill cutting
the work week to 30 hours.) To take a more recent example, one
of the last European governments with serious socialist aspirations,
the government of Francois Mitterand in France during the early
1980s, was forced to abandon much of its progressive economic
program in the face of corporate disinvestment and international
economic pressures. A progressive coalition in the United States
would face similar dangers.
THE TRUMP CARD
The basic reason public policy is biased towards business
interests is that business controls jobs and investment- two things
every representative and senator in Washington, and every governor
in every state capital, needs in his or her jurisdiction. Major
employers will always have, at the least, privileged access to
their elected officials, especially on items of direct relevance
to their interests, from regulatory matters to government contracts.
the government as a whole has a broader interest in maintaining
profitable conditions for business (often referred to as maintaining
"competitiveness") in order to promote investment and
job creation. Measures imposing major new costs on capital would
induce capital flight abroad and reduce investment in the United
States, so policymakers take pains to avoid them. As a result,
policy makers must give disproportionate consideration to business
interests, whether the issue is regulations, subsidies, tax policy,
or monetary policy.
Unfortunately, at the state level-where campaign finance reform
has made real inroads-this constraint is particularly acute, as
it is still easier for businesses to move across town or state
lines than to move overseas. Governors and state legislatures
bend over backwards to attract major new investment, offering
free infrastructure, tax breaks, and other subsidies to corporations
looking to build new factories, office complexes, or even sports
facilities. Campaign-finance reform alone is unlikely to overcome
this underlying reality.
THE LONG MARCH
The longer-term and more difficult task is to reconstruct,
from both the bottom up and the top down, the political-economic
system that bends government towards the interests of big business.
Given that politicians will always have an interest in "making
the economy work," the big question in a discussion of political
democracy is the same as the big question when it comes to economic
democracy: Who controls capital, and through what institutions?
A system based on numerous democratic economic institutions would
make politicians concerned with investment and job creation dependent
on a broad swath of a democratic populace, rather than a narrow
(and narrow-minded) band of private interests.
Is there a plausible way to get from here to there? Government
policies and legislation, especially at the highest reaches, are
heavily biased towards corporate capital, and against popular
alternatives. But governments are not monolithic. Over the last
30 years, local, state, and federal policies have nurtured a surprising
array of democratically governed economic institutions-including
worker-owned companies, progressive community development corporations,
and municipally owned firms. Governments have an extensive toolbox
of policies that could promote such alternatives, including pension
funds, loan guarantees, public contracts, tax breaks, and technical
assistance. A serious expansion of democratic economic alternatives
could, in turn, help shift the long-term political equations governing
American politics. Job creation and economic development would
no longer require submission to the interests of mobile corporations.
It is in this context that campaign-finance reform has a vital
role to play. Even modest gains for progressive candidates in
state and national elections could help forward an economic-democracy
agenda-to increase the number of jobs generated by popular, non-corporate
economic institutions, meeting local needs, promoting long-term
economic change, and reducing government dependence on corporate
capital. A handful of elected officials alone can't raise corporate
taxes, end public subsidies to private business, or create vast
new government programs. A few interested members, however, can
make a big difference in helping to protect (or expand) specific
legislation supporting, for instance, community credit unions.
To create a society in which each person really has an equal
voice in public life, we have to deal with the underlying structures
that currently allow a few voices to hold sway. That means not
only keeping big business from writing checks to candidates and
parties, but also dealing with the other ways business exerts
control over the government. Ultimately, it means inverting a
society top-heavy with economic power. To be sure, campaign finance
reform can play an important role in building a more democratic
economic system. But to equate the achievement of even the best
possible campaign-finance reforms with the achievement of a truly
democratic society is to expect too much from the reform movements
and too little of" democracy" itself.
Thad Williamson is a D&S collective member and co-author
(with Gar Alperovitz and David Imbroscio) of the forthcoming The
Resurrection of Community, which spells out a systematic policy
agenda for promoting democratic economic institutions in the U.S