New Yorkers may take a justifiable pride in knowing that throughout
American history their state legislature is second to none in the
corruption department. (Brains is another matter.) When it comes to
venality, the Empire State has no reason to hang its head when places like
Louisiana, California, Illinois and Arkansas are mentioned. Matched dollar
for dollar and ounce for ounce, our crooks are just as good as theirs. From
the days of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s bagmen on into our own,
in no place is a bribe more welcome than Albany.
Modern New Yorkers are so inured to dishonest government that the newest
and baldest act of bribery went largely uncommented on. I’m referring
to Governor Pataki’s forcing the charter school bill though the
Legislature by making the members’ salary raise contingent on passage
of the legislation. Without going into the merits or demerits of this
version of charter schools, one can only stand, mouth agape in admiration,
at the temerity of the rogues. Talk about a naked quid for an open, public,
Come Election Day next year, will there be retribution? Absolutely not.
The Democrats will continue their hold on the Assembly and the Republicans
will do the same in the Senate. Nothing is changing and nothing will. New
York and most other places are frozen in a pattern of safe electoral
districts, safe seats, nonsense primaries and tinkertoy elections which
seem democratic but are almost as ritualistically predetermined as the
kabuki elections the Soviets used to entertain us with.
These observations are news to nobody. We know that our politics is
close to ruin, thanks in part to the rule of money. The stink of do-re-mi
is in our nostrils and the talk of it is on our tongues, although less so
as the years pass and we accept the volume and velocity with which money
moves through our politics. The generally accepted total figure which was
spent in the nationwide elections last November is $2 billion.
The courts have made effective change impossible by ruling that money is
protected by the Bill of Rights. The court has decided that money talks and
we have to listen. Spondulix has free speech, but whether or not you and I
do is a mere debate topic. Given the composition of the Supreme Court and
the position taken by the Bush and Clinton appointees to the Court, no one
not currently in kindergarten should harbor a realistic hope that the role
played by money in our elections will be changed.
It’s an odd situation. The mossbacks in the Republican Party are
content to have political power transferred from people to pelf, but so are
the commie, pinko liberals. The reductio ad absurdists, crypto-nudists and
political faddists who run the American Civil Liberties Union are just as
much in favor of money power as Mitch McConnell, the smirky G.O.P. Senator
from Kentucky who has made it his mission to ensure no useful change in the
election laws can pass Congress. Not that it would matter if such a law
were enacted, because the Supreme Court would knock it down, anyway.
They’ve got us coming and going, which has not stopped people from
trying to invent some means of mucking out the electoral stable. The State
of Maine has passed a law that other states are looking at which has much
to commend it, if the courts will allow it. Without going into details, the
law is predicated on the proposition that if you cannot limit campaign
money, then the next best thing is to try to equalize it, that is, use
public funds to make sure that both candidates have approximately the same
amount of money to spend on their campaigns. That means using public money,
and it drives some types up a tree, but if enough money were available to a
poorer person’s campaign, it might stop jerks like Steve Forbes from
swooping down out of nowhere to buy themselves power, prominence and
That approach takes us part of the way. What it leaves undisturbed is
the central fault in modern American elections: Nationwide, they are
conducted by a few thousand specialists sitting in bunkers in New York and
Washington processing polls, creating mailers, radio and TV spots, buying
air time and fighting fax and cyberspace duels. We have achieved a certain
kind of democratic perfection, to wit, people-free elections that are
hardly more than dueling electronic apparatus. The modern campaign is
nonhuman and, as one might anticipate, has the added advantage of having
almost no voters. The present occupant of the White House is there thanks
to a landslide majority of somewhere around 19 percent of the eligible
voters. Thousands of occupants of lesser offices hold them thanks to the
suffrage of 8 or 10 percent of the eligible voters.
What are we going to do about that? Spend more money on political ads?
If a $2 billion ad campaign can’t get them to the polls, what makes us
think that $3 billion can? Some people say we should make voting
compulsory, but abstention is a political act of some sort, and abolishing
people’s right to exercise it endows an election with a false
legitimacy. Compulsory voting can only be defended if a “none of the
above” box is added to the ballot and, even so, it leaves a bad taste
in the mouth. Regimentation cuts against the grain.
No, we need another idea, something that forces elections to be
conducted as a social activity in which people interact with people rather
than machines operating on an inert public. Perhaps this is it: Instead of
declaring any candidate who gets the most votes the winner, change the
rules so that to win in a general election, a candidate must get a majority
or plurality (when there are three or more contestants) of the eligible
vote. Hence, in a two-candidate race, no winner will be declared until at
least 65 percent of the eligible voters have cast their ballots. Under such
a rule, there would be no more Clinton-type landslides with the winner
getting no more than 14, 15 or 16 percent of the eligible vote. Under this
system, a winner would have to gain the support of at least 33 percent of
the possible voters, hardly an unreasonable threshold. Until the 65 percent
line is crossed, no one would be declared elected, even if one candidate is
leading by 10 to 1.
The 65 percent would force candidates and campaigns out of the
consultants’ offices and into the streets, to confront and convince
would-be voters that there is sufficient reason for them to do the dirty
deed. For that to happen, very large numbers of people would have to be
recruited to work on campaigns. Present techniques like setting up paid
phone banks in low-wage sections of the country to phone prospective voters
hundreds of miles away won’t get enough people to the polls.
A second advantage to this idea is that it compels building political
organizations, even stable, grass-roots party organizations. It demands
recruiting tens of thousands of new people into real political work.
Currently, in a nation of a quarter of a billion people, there probably
aren’t 100,000 who have any role in elective politics save voting. The
conversion of politics from a labor-intensive activity into a
capital-intensive business has all but destroyed American democracy’s
red corpuscles. Our political system is now so anemic it is anyone’s
guess what might happen if it were to be seriously stressed.
To make the 65 percent turnout rule work, some other things would have
to be changed. Election Day would have to become Election Weekend or even
Election Week. Absentee balloting, which is growing anyhow, should be made
a routine alternative to walking over to the local firehouse or public
school. To reward especially valuable campaign workers, a degree of
political patronage ought to be restored. Lastly, term limitation laws
should be repealed. Elections in which 65 percent of the eligible voters
really vote should be legitimate enough to answer most of the arguments for
More about these questions at a later date. This little essay aims to
present a crude idea for reinvigorating our politics. We can’t stand
around forever bemoaning apathy and cynicism. We need a few new ideas,
fast, before the next great wave catches us amidships.