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Published on Friday, October 20, 2000 in the San Francisco Examiner
Corporate Rule vs. Democracy
by Erik Stowers
NEW YORK — Last month a skeptical public was treated to an awkward spectacle: Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton, flanked by teams of lawyers, strategists and contributors, negotiated a tentative ban on soft-money campaign advertisements.

Half a world away, another awkward spectacle unfolded as World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials, guarded by police in riot gear, promised concessions to the thousands of angry demonstrators who filled the streets of Prague.

Campaign finance reform and reform of world institutions go hand in hand. Both are grass-roots movements to curb the influence of corporate money over the institutions that govern us. Both are right to be skeptical of self-imposed half-measures that stop short of democratic control.

Consider campaign finance reform. From Sen. John McCain's stunning victories in the presidential primary campaign to its continued support in the polls, campaign finance reform has been an unavoidable topic this year.

At the core of this issue is the corrupting influence of big money upon the democratic process. When corporations and the wealthiest individuals can turn an election and gain influence over elected representatives, it seriously compromises the quality of our democracy.

Sensing an anti-corporate backlash, politicians have responded with crusades against certain industries (big oil, tobacco, firearms, HMOs, Hollywood) and proposals for voluntary soft money bans. These are diversions and stop-gap measures that avoid the basic issue.

Government regulation and punitive lawsuits are designed to right the ill-effects of corporations in the public sector and punish corporate misdeeds. But they do not address the influence that corporations wield over the politicians and officials who are supposed to regulate them.

Regulation and lawsuits often help to preserve such influence by diverting voter attention away from true reform. Partial and voluntary soft money bans, similarly, are election-year ploys. After the elections are over and fund-raising scandals have passed, the corporate influence remains, corrupting our institutions.

What we need is not just a mandatory ban on soft money but sweeping electoral reform. The system ought to be opened up to grass-roots movements and third parties. The public should exercise its right to the airwaves during elections and grant the time for lengthy, substantive campaign ads and numerous debates based, not upon money, but upon voter support.

A similar, more extreme corruption exists within the world institutions that exercise increasing power over individual states. Private corporations have enormous influence within the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

The leaders of these secretive organizations are not elected. And though the bureaucrats who run them have responded to criticism and protests with limited concessions, they have not offered democracy. The people and states who are bound by these organizations should be allowed to sit down and determine how they should be run.

At the heart of the two most crucial issues today — campaign finance reform and reform of world institutions — is the question of corporate rule versus democracy.

Anyone who has been to Athens knows that the world's first democratic revolution necessitated a construction boom. What we need to do now is roll up our sleeves and get down to some serious building.

Voters and citizens are right to be skeptical of the half-measures proposed in New York and Prague. Democracy is not something to be negotiated for with bureaucrats and politicians. It is a fundamental right.

Examiner contributor Erik Stowers was one of the protesters arrested at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Copyright 2000 SF Examiner


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