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'The corruption in our elections corrupts all of our politics,' writes Teachout. (Photo: AFP file)

The Path to Freedom From Corruption Goes Through My State — And Your State

Our current problem isn’t bribery of voters, but legal bribery of candidates.

Zephyr Teachout

The system is rigged and broken. A small number of people have far too much political power in America. There is a clear way out, and it starts in the states.

In the past, quick anti-corruption reform has started in the states. Until the late 19th century, ballots were mostly public, leading to systematic bribery of voters. Secret ballots were the result of state-by-state reform movements in the 1880s and 1890s.

Our current problem isn’t bribery of voters, but legal bribery of candidates. Power flows from elections, and right now most elections rely exclusively on private funding by some of the wealthiest people in world history. That means most candidates — and therefore, leaders — have no choice but to become sycophants to their interests. The corruption in our elections corrupts all of our politics.

In New York City, where I live, candidates are free to fund their campaigns privately or publicly, and that freedom from begging has transformed politics and policy. … Candidates run on their ideas, and don’t keep silent when they have ideas that the billionaires don’t like.

The first step to a state-by-state wave is to recognize the exceptions — the places in America where candidates are free to run for office without begging for favors from oligarchs. Inside the broken system are functioning microcosms of what could be.

In New York City, where I live, candidates are free to fund their campaigns privately or publicly, and that freedom from begging has transformed politics and policy. More women, more people of color, and more people from middle class families hold power. Candidates run on their ideas, and don’t keep silent when they have ideas that the billionaires don’t like. When someone in power makes a bad policy judgment, they have only themselves to blame, not their funders.

We have to replicate that. We have to leverage those places in America where we can build more models like New York City, looking strategically at the politics and local dynamics. Some parts of this country are more broken and corrupt than the federal government, but others are more dynamic and in flux, and some are only a few votes away from building the public financing model. It’s true that in the states you’ll find greater chaos — and some of the more fascinatingly knuckleheaded forms of corruption — but there’s also greater hope.

I see the path going right through my state, New York. Let me explain why: in two years, Democrats in New York State are likely to win the State Senate. We’ll have a truly Democratic Senate, a Democratic Assembly, and a (putatively) Democratic governor for the first time in decades. The future leaders in all these offices have all supported the New York City public financing model. All of them.

They may be tempted to get cold feet when they have power, so our job in the next two years is to lock down every assembly member and state senator we need for a public financing vote.

New York State can trigger a domino effect through others, much like Massachusetts led the states in secret ballot reform 130 years ago. The last time a public financing domino strategy was attempted, a decade ago, people were less anxious about corruption: now almost everyone sees how legal bribery is destroying our democracy and economy.

If New York State passes public financing for all offices, it will have hundreds of great side effects, training the national press in how public financing works, and training notoriously ambitious New York State politicians in a better system, one which they can then bring to the national level.

(Right now, half of our challenge is ignorance: few of the national press corps even understand that there’s an entirely constitutional alternative to private funding. A few years ago TIME magazine ran a story about broken politics and reform that didn’t even mention the public financing option.)

Zephyr Teachout on the Bare Knuckle Fight Against Money in Politics

Meanwhile, at the same time as we pursue giving candidates the freedom to run without billionaires, we should also start another entirely constitutional campaign: engaging the sleeping giant of trust busting America to break up big companies. We saw this giant roar in the Net neutrality fight, and we can see it again if we demand that banks, Monsanto, educational testing companies, and every other monopoly be kept in check. We can do that too, on the state level, using public service commissions to deny big cable’s carnivorous desire to merge and build more and more powerful monopolies.

The path is there, but I won’t pretend it’s easy. Like the trailblazers who dug the path of the Erie Canal right through New York State nearly two centuries ago, it’s going to take a lot of bushwhacking, and a lot of imagination, but it can transform the system and free up the entire country.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout ran for governor of New York State in 2014. She teaches constitutional and property law at Fordham University Law School. Her latest book, Corruption in America, is a history of the corrosive influence of money in politics.

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