No Escape from Money-Driven Politics
Published on Sunday, June 10, 2001 in the Boston Globe
No Escape from Money-Driven Politics
by Robert Kuttner
WAS RECENTLY at a gathering of political reformers who were marveling that Jon Corzine, an investment banker who spent much of his fortune to become a senator from New Jersey, was turning out to be one of the most liberal members of the US Senate.

Which would you rather have, asked one of the assembled: a guy like Bob Torricelli (New Jersey's other senator now under investigation for corruption) scrounging for money, or someone like Corzine, who can't be bought?

Given that choice, I suppose I'd choose the uncorrupted millionaire. But can't I see another menu?

Apparently not. Here in Massachusetts, voters approved the Clean Elections referendum by better than a two-to-one margin. This law, similar to ones in Maine and Arizona, allows ordinary people to raise very small amounts of money from many supporters and then get campaign funding from the state. This gets big money out of politics and allows more competitive elections.

The voters may have spoken, but the Massachusetts House of Representatives is refusing to provide the necessary funding.

Most House incumbents, who have come to expect reelection without serious opposition, fear the inconvenience of democracy.

Senate President Thomas Birmingham, by contrast, has proposed multiyear funding, and the full state Senate is expected to narrowly go along. But the House could still kill the measure in conference.

The clean elections movement is one of the most hopeful signs of democratic renewal in decades. The point is not just limit the influence of fat cats and special interests but to give ordinary people a shot at getting elected, reviving popular faith in democracy.

In Maine, more than a third of legislative contenders ran in 2000 as clean elections candidates, taking no large contributions. More women, and people of modest means, got involved in politics - and got elected. Deborah Simpson, a waitress and single mother, got elected state representative. But for the most part, the trend is going in the opposite direction.

In New York, financial mogul Michael Bloomberg has decided he'd like to be mayor. He didn't even show up for the official announcement of his candidacy. He did it by slick TV commercials. Though a political novice, he is instantly competitive because he has so much money.

Italy's richest man and most famous media entrepreneur, Silvio Berlusconi, is now also Italy's prime minister. As a media baron, he already controls three out of Italy's four privately owned TV channels. As prime minister, he will also control the three state-owned channels.

Politics is again becoming a rich man's game. In 1913, at the zenith of the Progressive Era, we ratified the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, providing for direct popular election of senators.

Prior to 1913, senators were appointed by state Legislatures, and a growing number were millionaires who had bought their seats by contributions to state legislators. The reformers of that era assumed that by giving the election of senators directly to the voters, the Senate would cease to be a rich man's club.

But the process has come full circle. Very wealthy people now have not only the money needed to pursue office but the prestige. It is assumed that the achievement and competence that matters is financial.

Before the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, society was unitary. There was a king, an official church, and everyone knew his place in a single social hierarchy.

With democracy came pluralism. You could achieve accomplishment as a merchant, or a soldier, artist, scholar, scientist, or just as a citizen.

Now, weirdly, we are back to a kind of unitary society in which there is one yardstick of influence and achievement, and it is financial.

This, of course, is anything but democratic. Money-driven politics feeds on itself. Ordinary people tune out. Politics becomes more an affair for insiders, conducted via polls, fund-raisers, and paid TV ads rather than meetings of citizens. Money displaces voters.

It is hardly accidental that the man now attracting bipartisan interest as a possible independent candidate for president, Senator John McCain of Arizona, is best known for his advocacy of campaign finance reform.

Here in Massachusetts, the incumbent state representatives who would ignore the will of two-thirds of the voters deserve our contempt. Elsewhere, clean elections initiatives are attracting new support.

And Britain, from whom we wrested our democratic independence more than two centuries ago, has just put us to shame as a democracy by running an election whose paid expenditures averaged just $36,000 per legislative seat. The Brits were embarrassed by a ''low'' voter turnout of 63 percent, which far exceeds ours.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company