by Stan Cutler
Democrat Hillary Clinton opened her presidential campaign with an address to college students in Iowa, saying, “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all – even if it takes a constitutional amendment.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), in a radio interview in New Hampshire, said, “Well, Citizens United has gotta be fixed. Y’all agree with that? You’re gonna need a constitutional amendment to fix this problem.” Graham said he was considering entering the 2016 Presidential race.
Two weeks ago, a postal worker from Florida landed a gyrocopter on the Capitol Grounds to bring attention to the problems caused by billionaire money in politics.
So it seems that both parties and independents alike recognize the need to reform the system. But, before we jump on the idea of a Constitutional amendment, a fix that will be extremely difficult to accomplish, we should understand the roots of the problem because there might be a better way.
People used to complain about the old convention system of selecting presidential candidates. It didn’t seem particularly democratic because the process was controlled by professional politicians. When the final decisions were being made, the mass of Americans were not participating. The conventions were like high-stakes poker games with delegate votes as chips. And those votes were traded in secret deals between politicians. The old poker game bred corruption, and we didn’t care for it.
So we instituted a system of state primary elections. I don’t think we can say that the current system is better or worse in terms of results – we’ve elected good and bad Presidents both ways. But the primary system, as we’ve implemented it, is enormously expensive and prolonged. As a result, the wealthiest class of Americans has disproportionate influence. The money required corrupts politics and government. Our system is now more oligarchic than democratic because we have accepted the notion that a presidential campaign is substantially the same as selling cars. A business model has supplanted democracy.
The primary election system directly influences all the contests for the Senate and the House of Representative, since candidates for those offices are selected on the same ballots. The lesser campaigns conform to the same business model as the presidential campaigns. The networks know that their income is correlated to the size of the audience for the national shows – excuse me – elections. Money is the deciding factor in every campaign.
The pursuit of money preoccupies our legislators, as they devote increasing proportions of their energy to fundraising for the election cycles. Soon, they will not even pretend that they are legislating. If we want good government, this has got to stop.
For the cable news networks, revenues rely critically on the election cycles. Just as retailers need Christmas, cable news needs election days. The bigger the audience watching the election news and interviews, and “in-depth” analyses, and pundits, and popularity graphs, and election maps, the more money the media charge for airtime. The cost rises continually until the November elections.
The icing on the cake is the money spent by the presidential campaigns themselves to advertise the candidates in both the primaries and the general election. Airtime is auctioned off to the highest bidder. A similar process takes place in every TV newsroom in every local outlet from coast to coast. And the rates go up every cycle. In other words, as bad as it is now, it can only get worse.
Regulating the money spent has proven to be impossible, and it’s even more difficult since the Citizens United decision legalized unlimited financing. Campaign finance reform doesn’t work. It is a failed approach. I think a better solution is to reduce the cost, not to regulate financing. If you owned a widget factory, you would do everything you could to reduce the cost of production. You’d install faster, cheaper machines. We own a democracy, a factory, if you will, that produces presidents and legislators. But it is our democracy, not the financiers’. We need to reduce the costs of production.
Every day we chop from the process reduces the costs. Every reduction in cost diminishes the influence of the wealthy advertisers. If it chooses to do so, Congress could regulate the primaries without amending the Constitution and without violating the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.
Next week I’ll explain how it might be done.