Campaign finance reform is now officially off the front burner. Almost everyone will let this slip off the radar until the next big election, because that is what we do in this short attention span theater culture we’ve developed.
And, yet, this is really an important time to act on it. Yes, I know we have other issues going on, and I am not suggesting that we should put them aside. We need to deal with the unemployment situation. We need to deal with the financial “crisis”. We need to deal with a lot of things. However, this is one of those things that really should be dealt with before the next election cycle. Preferably before the mid-term, but definitely before the next presidential election. I know that isn’t going to happen, but it should.
There is a very strong argument to be made that the ideal situation is a truly level playing field. That would be a situation of completely publicly funded campaigns. If individuals, corporations, unions, PACs, etc still wanted to contribute then they would be able to contribute to that fund in a similar way that we as individuals are able to contribute to the Presidential Campaign Fund with our income tax filing. It is highly unlikely that they would, of course, since they are not actually interested in funding democracy, but rather in buying candidates and influencing the outcomes of campaigns. They are not altruistic, but rather acting with a specific goal in mind.
Still, that is precisely the reason that the argument for public financing of campaigns is so strong. It takes that influence out. It makes the campaigns and the outcomes more pure, because the candidates are less likely to have been purchased so blatantly and publicly. It does open the possibility that companies and unions, more so than PACs, would contribute to these funds for the positive PR. This move would certainly put an end to the Citizens United ruling and the mess it created. There would be no more SuperPACs. And, that leads to the strongest negative also. It would make it more difficult for groups of people such as unions, AARP, NRA, etc to get their messages out. If not done properly, a system like this would intrude on 1st amendment rights, and courts would properly strike it down. While this is not the space for a full solution, there are ways around those pitfalls.
Public financing of campaigns, if done properly, would also help to break the strangle hold that the Democrats and Republicans have on our winner take all election system by, again, leveling the playing field. If all sides have equal funding to get their messages out, then voters actually have a chance to hear it. The Rocky Andersons, Gary Johnsons and Jill Steins of the elections will have a better chance to unseat the 800-pound gorillas sitting in the throne. As it stands, money is allowing for a louder voice to be heard, instead of a better voice or all voices. Despite the best efforts of the campaigns themselves, myself (here and elsewhere), and others, the mainstream media virtually ignored all of the “third-party” candidates, to the point that some people were shocked to see candidates other than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on their ballots.
There are many issues that would be addressed by moving to a fully publicly financed campaign system. It would come with other pitfalls that would have to be guarded against, but it would provide the greatest solutions to what all sides say they see as a huge problem in our political system. All sides decry the influence of special interests via money on the outcomes of the process. All sides insist they believe that something must be done about it, and yet, when the time comes to actually do something about it, no one wants to give up their own sweet deals, perks and benefits.
So, we know that public financing is off the table any time soon. “Top tier” candidates opt out of it because they can spend much more money if they are not limited by it, the public is choosing not to contribute to it (participation is down to 6.6% per the FEC), and no one in office today has the testicular fortitude to suggest it, much less the support to actually get it passed. What’s left? What other alternatives do we have to address the issues with campaign finance and the corruption in our system?
First, make no mistake. It is rampant, systemic corruption, but it is not confined to just the elected officials. The corruption is, in fact, in the minds of the voters, or more often, in the minds of the non-voters. At least the voters, even when misguided or simply selfish, are still participating and trying. They have not completely given up or been lulled into being total sheep that choose to be acted on rather than making even the slightest effort at acting for themselves. There is nothing more enslaving than the belief that one is powerless. There is little more foolish than to believe that one can live in a society and be unaffected by the decisions that are made by that larger society. To choose not to participate in those decisions is to choose to believe that one is, in fact, quite powerless.
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