By Donella Meadows
–May 20, 1997–
My dear fellow Americans,
A recent New York Times/CBS poll says that 89 percent of us think our political campaign system should be fundamentally changed. Just eight percent of us think it needs only minor tinkering. (The option “no change, our campaigns work splendidly” was not even offered as a choice.)
We’re not dummies.
According to the poll 68 percent of us do not believe Congress has any intention of changing the campaign finance laws — and 53 percent of us don’t think President Clinton does either.
They haven’t fooled us.
There are a few items in the poll that bother me, though. That’s what I want to discuss with you here.
First, the poll says we are convinced that campaign money corrupts the government, but we do not list this problem as a high priority compared to crime, schools, and the economy.
I ask you to rethink that one. The moneyed interests that buy off our government are costing us ordinary taxpayers hundreds of billions in higher taxes and lower benefits. They are the reason our schools have so little while our Pentagon wastes so much. Their steady pressure to cut government programs for everyone but the rich is a major reason why many of us feel we’re getting nowhere and some of us give up and turn to crime. Because of money flows to politicians, our health care system is increasingly inhumane and unaffordable. Because banking interests bought off regulators, we had to bail out banks run into the ground by criminals. Our mineral, forest, and grazing resources are being given away to tycoons who leave destruction behind them on the land.
We’re being robbed. Systematically. Massively.
Every day we can see in the news some small or large example of our government working for campaign contributors and against the people. Last week, for example, the Senate voted down a bill that would have slapped a hefty tax on cigarettes and used the money to pay for medical care for 10 million children. This idea was pushed by a Republican, Orrin Hatch, and a Democrat, Ted Kennedy. Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of it. But tobacco companies write big checks and children don’t. So the bill was voted down 55-45, as precise a measure as you’ll ever see of the degree to which our Senators are owned by tobacco companies. (You don’t have to buy them all; you only have to buy more than half.)
We no longer have a democracy.
We have, as one woman said, as she failed to stop a hazardous waste incinerator next to her children’s school, a “wealthocracy.” A debate over clean air standards is raging right now, the coal and auto companies are bearing down hard and one Capitol Hill staffer told the Washington Post, “There’s no way that the final decision will be made … solely on the basis of protecting children.”
Friends, this is not a low-priority problem. If we need the government to enforce environmental rules, to help poor people in any way, to keep bulldozers and ads out of national parks, to defend the country cost-effectively, to maintain highways and bridges, to enforce the law even-handedly, to tax us fairly, or to be even minimally competent, then campaign reform is the top priority, because it’s the key to all other priorities.
When asked how to fix the system, most of us, says the poll, favor public disclosure of where campaign money comes from and how it is spent. We think radio and television stations should give free time for campaign messages. But seventy-eight percent of us oppose public financing of campaigns.
That rejection of public financing is something else I’d like to ask you to think about. I too used to wince at the thought of being taxed for campaigns. “Why pay them to indoctrinate me?” I thought. “Don’t encourage them,” some of my friends say. I’ve heard public campaign funding called “welfare for politicians.” I’ve heard people say it would be too expensive.
It wouldn’t be nearly as expensive as the present system is. It would cost us millions and save us trillions. There could be no better investment. And consider this: if we paid for their campaigns, there could be no doubt in the politicians’ minds that they work for us. They could concentrate on that work, rather than spend half their time trolling for funds for their next campaign. Poor folks could actually run for office; rich folks wouldn’t have an automatic advantage. And, if we were paying for political speech, there’s a chance the Supreme Court would let us set some ground rules for it. No mud-slinging. Tell us about your actual record, what you’ve voted for, what you’ve stuck up for. Speak to us in full sentences for minutes at a time. We’ll give you enough money to make your case fully, but not enough to hire PR firms to sell you like fast food.
Our founding fathers warned us that democracy can’t last unless we are willing to fight for it in every generation. Wars are not the only kinds of fights, and foreign dictators — or foreign campaign contributors — are not the only threats to government of, by, and for the people. If we want our democracy back, our battle has to be, as was that of our founding fathers, against the corrupt power structure that rules us.
We can do it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997