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Published on Friday, August 25, 2000 in the Independent / UK
US Politicians Now Pause Too Often For A Message From Their Sponsors
by Andrew Gumbel
It is an odd time to be a dissenter in America. The economy is booming. No Americans are dying in foreign wars. Unemployment is down, and so is crime. And yet the dissent is there, and it is being felt across an extraordinary range of public opinion. Over the past few months, we have seen tens of thousands of people take the city of Seattle by storm and challenge the globalisation agenda of the World Trade Organisation; we have seen John McCain, the populist Republican senator, launch a spirited anti-establishment campaign to try to wrest his party's presidential nomination from Mr Bush.

We have seen the Reform Party, the third force founded eight years ago by the Texas billionaire Ross Perot, becoming so exercised about its own critique of the system that it is splitting into two Reform parties, one libertarian and one far-right nationalist.

Finally, we have seen a growing disquiet among rank-and-file Democrats that their party is losing touch with its roots and becoming little more than a mirror image of the Republicans. In the words of Warren Beatty, an active champion of liberal causes who was briefly courted to run for president himself this year: "What we need is not a third party, but a second party."

For all their disparate agendas, there is one unifying theme binding these dissenting voices, and that is a sense of outrage at the corruption of the political system. Politics, the feeling runs, no longer belongs to the people, but is being bought by big companies able to use their financial muscle to determine who runs for office and what they do once they get there. This is not a trivial matter to be pushed into a file marked "Campaign Finance Reform"; the very foundation of America's democracy is at stake.

Raising money for political campaigns is, of course, nothing new in American politics, but what has changed is the ability of corporations to infiltrate the system to such an extent that they can all but own candidates for office. Direct campaign contributions have been strictly limited ever since the Watergate scandal, but thanks to a regulatory loophole there is no cap on so-called "soft money" – indirect payments once intended to cover incidental office expenses but now most commonly used to pay for television advertising, the biggest ticket in any campaign budget. During the 1992 presidential election, the two main parties received $86m in soft money contributions. By 1996, that number had jumped to $260m and this year it could go as high as $750m.

In years past, interest groups would identify candidates and platforms that appealed to them and donate accordingly – big business generally backing the Republicans while unions, litigation lawyers and others backed the Democrats. Recently, however, companies have understood that it is much smarter to back both horses in a race so half of their money ends up working for them. The number of companies contributing at least $100,000 to both parties has skyrocketed, from 40 in 1996 to 87 this year.

The effect of this infiltration is felt at every level. Politicians are spending more and more time fund-raising, and much less acting on behalf of their constituents. The greater their need to fund-raise, the easier it is for contributors to lean on them.

In California, where television advertising rates are among the highest in the country and political races consequently among the most expensive, the state insurance commissioner was recently forced to quit because he had turned a blind eye to gross abuses by insurance companies who had contributed lavishly to his election campaigns. He had even taken insurance money intended for earthquake victims and funnelled it into his own campaign war chest.

Also in California, a recent attempt to set up an independent commission of inquiry into abuses by guards at state prisons was voted down by the legislature despite a major scandal involving staged gladiator fights, organised rape and inmate shootings. One legislator, when challenged by the attorney general on his vote, admitted that he was "whoring" for the prison guards' union which had contributed a whopping $28m to candidates in the 1998 state elections.

Such instances are becoming commonplace everywhere. Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat senator from Wisconsin who has co-authored a bill with Mr McCain to ban soft money, calls the system "legalised bribery". "This is not a system of one person one vote," he said at the Democrats' convention last week, "but a system of one million dollars, one million votes."

The strength of feeling should not be underestimated. The protest against the WTO, which was about the same kind of corporate control on a global level, brought 50,000 people on to the streets of Seattle – little short of an earthquake in a country utterly unaccustomed to such spectacles.

If the street protests have since fizzled, it has partly been through poor planning and partly because of a failure to see the connection to domestic politics fast enough. But still, a spirit has been captured; if there is not yet a movement, there is most certainly a mood. Both Mr Bush and Mr Gore have felt obliged to refer to campaign finance reform on the stump; in his convention speech, Mr Gore went out of his way to denounce corporate influence and even acknowledged the spirit of Seattle in a reference to "fair trade, not just free trade".

How sincere these undertakings are remains to be seen. When Senator Feingold addressed the convention floor last week, most of his colleagues were away at a big corporate fund-raiser. When Mr Gore had finished his own fine words, he went straight to a celebrity-studded concert and raised $5m. As for Mr Bush, he has beaten all records, raising more than $90m to date.

Whoever wins in November will be sorely tempted to wish the issue away. The corporate sponsors who paid for the election will be clamouring for their pound of flesh. Besides, politicians will have little interest in cutting off the source of their own bonanza.

But neglect could be perilous. There is a rage brewing in the country, and it crosses all social and political boundaries. No politician would want that rage to erupt; the next president will have to find a way to assuage it.

2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.


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