By Donella Meadows
— September 14, 1995–
Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich are peddling books. Bill Clinton is running TV ads. Presidential candidates are popping up at senior centers all over New Hampshire. Like Christmas decorations immediately after Halloween, the ‘96 political campaign has started way too soon. We aren’t ready to buy yet or even browse, but the political marketers are gearing up for the hard sell.
Selling candidates with glitter and slogans, balloons and ballyhoo, has been going on since elections began. Campaign rhetoric has never been exactly truthful, much less exalted. But it took TV to turn silly soundbites into the death of democracy. TV made campaigning much, much more expensive. Now it costs millions of dollars to flimflam the public. That money can only come from rich people and groups, who then own the politicians.
From all over the political spectrum people have better reasons than ever before to distrust our government. There’s hardly a pretense any more of making policy for the public good. The purpose of government is to deliver payoffs to big contributors. Lobbyists are invited in to draft the laws. Elections are choices between varying degrees of corruption. Whatever you want to call the kind of government we have, it is no longer of, by, or for the people.
I am more interested in changing this situation than in bewailing it, so I will make only a short list here to remind us of abuses perpetrated by the government. Failing to regulate the banks and then bailing them out with taxpayers’ money. Selling public forests to logging companies at below-market cost and unsustainable cutting rates. Paying exorbitant prices for unneeded weapons. Slashing support for education, research, legal assistance, school lunches, environmental protection, health care, and virtually all other needs of the people. Cutting the taxes of the rich while raising the taxes of everyone else.
Whatever your cause, if you can’t back it with lots of money, you can’t win. Pleas for affordable health care go nowhere against the lobbying of doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and insurers. You and I can never outbid the Chemical Manufacturers Association when it comes to clean water law. If you’d like the airwaves free of filth, you are up against the megacorporations that own the media. Forget about justice for the poor; the poor have no money.
Politicians who got where they are by playing this game don’t want to change it. They talk about every issue except the role of money in politics. They tell us that the nation suffers from too much flag-burning, or too little pledging of allegiance, or too few fighter-bombers, but they do not mention too much money and too little democracy.
So we have to mention it. This early campaign is our opportunity.
When they poll us about crime or jobs or abortion, we can say we only want to talk about campaign reform.
When they form us into focus groups to find out how to ring our emotional chimes, we can resound only to campaign reform.
When they come to town making speeches, we can applaud only for campaign reform. We can ask the candidates only one question: What are you going to do about money in politics?
We have to be united, single-minded, relentless. Whether our main concern is environment, civil rights, taxes, jobs, farms, labor, health, science, or the deficit, what we need first is democracy. We can argue later about our other problems; first we need a fair arena within which to argue.
We need to demand campaign reform and we need to define it. Here’s a good agenda, taken from David Korten’s new book When Corporations Rule the World:
1. Prohibit political advertising, especially in the broadcast media. Electronic media should be required as part of their public licensing obligation to provide ample time for debates, interviews, and roundtables with candidates.
2. Place strict (and very low) limits on individual campaign contributions.
3. Place strict limits on campaign spending. We want to know what candidates can do with a limited budget, not how effectively they can manipulate us with money and glitz.
4. Get corporations out of politics. Corporations are public bodies created by public charter to serve a public purpose. It is their responsibility to obey the rules set by the people, not to make the rules. Corporations should not make political contributions of any kind, nor solicit their employees, shareholders, sales outlets, or suppliers to make contributions or representations on public policy matters.
5. To assure a diversity of political voices, subject the communications media to strict anti-trust provisions. No individual or corporation should own more than one electronic or print media outlet.
6. Corporations that interfere with the democratic process or show repeated disregard for the law should lose their corporate charters. (Three strikes and you’re out.)
That is a radical agenda, they will say.
That is democracy, we must reply, and we will accept nothing less.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995