Rich Will Find a Way Around Campaign Reforms

Following George W. Bush’s lead, Howard Dean and John Kerry aren’t taking any federal campaign money, which frees them from fund-raising caps. The sky’s the limit, assuming that they have the political rocket power to get up into the rarefied air where Mr. Bush flies with $200 million or more to spend in getting himself back into office.

The Democrats’ decision ratifies what has been apparent for some years: The attempt to limit the influence of big money has failed. In fact, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that all attempts over the last century to effect political reform-defined as limiting the power of money-have failed. Money is as much the king of American politics now as it was in the time of Mark Twain’s Great Barbecue.

Over the years, there have been so many schemes with such great hope invested in them. To get some perspective on the progress of reform or lack thereof, it helps to listen to the voices of yesterday. One of the strongest and most respected belongs to William Allen White, the legendary editor of the Emporia Gazette. White, a small-town, progressive, Teddy Roosevelt–ian Republican, was a figure whose shadow was cast well beyond the wheat fields of his flat farming state. For decades he was regarded as not merely the sage of the Midwest but of real-read Anglo-Saxon-Americans everywhere. Never a Populist, never a radical, a Republican through thick and thin, but always a reformer, in 1910 White published an optimistic book entitled The Old Order Changeth , the contents of which should afford the stuff of cogitation for those of us living a century later.

He wrote jubilantly of the approaching election of U.S. Senators by popular vote and not by state legislatures: “United States senators will go directly to the people for nomination, and not to the railroads and … corporations.” Taking the selection of Senators out of the hands of state legislatures and deciding it by popular vote has not changed the composition of the Senate; it is still a bastion of millionaires and multimillionaires.

“Indeed,” White enthused, “the growth of fundamental democracy is astonishing. Thirty years ago the secret ballot was regarded as a passing craze by professional politicians. Twenty years ago it was a vital issue in nearly every American state. Today the secret ballot is universal in American politics.” And now most people think the secret ballot is somehow embedded in the Constitution and would be surprised to learn it was unheard of in America until around the 1890′s.

It turns out that the secret ballot is an example of a meaningless reform. It had more to do with creeping middle-class hoity-toityism than any significant empowerment of people over and against big money. The idea behind the secret ballot is that it protects the voter against intimidation, which it does, but a stout police officer at the polls should be able to do that. The secret ballot came in about the same time that the American middle class was able to afford separate bedrooms for all the members of the family. It came in with the triumph of privacy, but privacy is of dubious value in a democratic political process, which should be highly social and interactive. Privacy encourages a retreat into passivity, which is the last thing you want in a democracy.

White also wrote: “Ten years ago the direct primary was the subject of academic discussion …. Now it is in active operation in over two thirds of our American states and over half of the American people use the direct primary as a weapon of self government.” White and many other reformers embraced the primary as a replacement for the caucus and convention system, which had theretofore obtained in the states-and which still lives in Iowa and, in modified forms, a number of other states. In White’s time, it was subject to outrageous manipulation and purchase, but it had the advantage that, if hotly motivated, people without money could rise up and seize their political party. The caucus or convention system of nomination and party governance encourages large-scale active participation. It is not impervious to big money, but big money has to get its butt out there and bribe the grass roots one root at a time.

What White and his fellow reformers did not see, although there were a few who did, was that the primary system would not only discourage one-on-one politicking, but would ultimately hand over the political process to the mass media and therefore to the biggest of big money. With the switch to the primary system, candidate selection was opened up to the millions who would not stir their stumps to turn up at local caucuses, where delegates were chosen to go to the regional or state conventions where the nominations took place. Those new primary-voting millions were subject to a mass media barrage before they voted, and as that happened the political parties, as organizations, had an increasingly hard time interacting directly with the voters. What the political experts call “retail politics” began to shrivel, and the parties watched as their power to choose their own candidates and policies was curtailed by the media machines, which did the bidding of the big-money interests.

White’s optimism was boundless. He thought everything was coming up roses: “Five years ago the recall was a piece of freak legislation in Oregon. Today more American citizens are living under laws giving them the power of recall than were living under the secret ballot when Garfield came to the White House (1881) ….” His hopes for initiative and referendum were just as high: He believed he foresaw citizens-not professional politicians-banding together to collect names on petitions to pass needed legislation stalled in state lawmaking bodies. He could not foresee that rich interests would kidnap these procedures by hiring signature gatherers to put their own projects on the ballot and then, using their money to fill the airwaves with their propaganda, would job the millions into voting against their own interests time and time again.

White was a thoughtful and broad-minded man. He was not a naïf, but he placed too much faith in the power of laws and purely mechanical arrangements to make right the political wrongs he saw around himself and his contemporaries. With no interest in overthrowing the entire system or instituting a semi-socialist revolutionary regime, he thought he could right the balance of power stemming from the concentration of wealth by proposals of the kind we still hear today. But money is very difficult to defeat: Like water, it can seep in everywhere. Money will despoil every reform which is not backed up by some kind of enforcing political muscle.

One thing the American masses do not have is political muscle. For a variety of reasons, labor-union power has been on a long decline, and no new kind of institution has grown up to represent the middling millions. There is one exception, the American Association of Retired Persons-the only successful attempt at the organizing of non-rich people in the past 50 years. AARP is also the only successful example of organizing white-collar people, the kind of people who have a visceral repugnance to joining anything which quacks like a labor union.

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent organization for non-retired, white-collar people while these same masses grow weaker in terms of power every year. They grow weaker because, with the passing of time, the top 5 or 10 percent control an ever larger percentage of the nation’s wealth-wealth which can be used to manipulate the democratic process to aggrandize the already overly powerful rich. The middle-class masses grow weaker because they grow financially ever less secure in their jobs, in their savings and in their hopes for retirement. The attacks on private pension plans and Social Security create a vista for millions of working until they drop in the traces. In the last few months, thanks to the efforts of Eliot Spitzer, New York State’s Attorney General, it has come to light that one of the reasons that the rich have been bloating up at a faster-than-usual pace is that they have been plundering the mutual funds, which constitute the savings of countless millions. The less money you have, the more you fear the boss and thus the less independence you have. Coupled with the huge debts that have much of the middle class tossing and turning every night, this vast number of people-the unconscious majority-have seldom been in a weaker position, economically, socially or politically. Their weakness is compounded by the apprehension that their livelihood may be exported to India any day next week.

Pending the day that this unconscious majority wakes up and organizes protection for itself, there is scant reason to put faith in reformist schemes. As the other Democratic candidates reject federal campaign-spending limits, all you can do is send regular-if small-contributions to the candidate of your choice. William Allen White would approve.