Archive for January 6th, 2012

Republic, Lost

It’s hard to list all of the problems with American democracy: negative attack-campaigning, excessive lobbying influence, a lack of transparency, polarized political gridlock, a cable-news media with low journalistic standards, and a lack of civic engagement. But as explained by Lawrence Lessig, this tree of corruption of democracy has a single root: campaign finance. Attempts to reform these other branches will prove either impossible or meaningless as long as the current system of campaign finance is in place. Politicians in Washington spend anywhere from 30-70% of their time raising money. And it is not because they want to; it is out of necessity of the large sums of money required to run a successful political campaign. In order to raise this money, our elected representatives need to spend a great deal of time with donors. And the donors they court are typically not people like you and me. This makeshift system of financing campaigns gives a great deal of Washington access to a very small segment of the population (those with enough wealth to spare on politics).

Yale Law professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayers propose a bold plan to reform the campaign finance system in their book, Voting with Dollars. Their plan includes basically two parts: (1) a system of public financing through vouchers and (2) a method to disburse all additional donations anonymously. The public financing gives every eligible voter a $50 “patriot voucher,” which they can donate towards any campaign of their choice. Donations beyond that would still be allowed, but would go through a fund, and all donations would be disbursed to the candidate in smaller denominations over time, render them untraceable to the candidate.

This reform makes a lot of sense, and I gather there would be widespread support from voters. The book even proposes some legislation. The only obstacle we face is mustering the political will. The major political parties have been unwilling to shake the established financing customs, since it works quite well for both of them. Perhaps a group such as Americans Elect would be able to produce a ticket with reform-minded candidates who would make campaign finance reform a priority. Buddy Roemer often mentions this issue in interviews ( and I could imagine him pairing with someone like Russ Feingold, who has also worked on campaign finance reform). But unfortunately, it is hard to imagine the necessary reform coming from the established parties.

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