Is Culture the Solution to the Campaign Finance Problem?

This is the fifth in a series on Money in Politics.

Americans love prohibitions rather than investments. That’s tragic because prohibitions often work poorly while investments pay off.

Antipathy toward investments grew in the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. Politicians used crime as a wedge issue and the riots facilitated their strategy. While liberals talked about the causes of crime, and the things we could do to deal with it, conservatives had no patience for what they called “coddling criminals.”[1]

In the 60s we still invested in prevention,[2] afterschool activities, and treatment. But the War on Drugs substituted a focus on condemnation and mass incarceration.[3] Prohibitions were in and expenditures became “waste.” We’re turning back now because we have discovered it is expensive to warehouse people.

Reagan generalized, telling America that “Government is the problem.” His attack was designed to end the War on Poverty that President Johnson inaugurated. The war on taxes was a way to kill otherwise popular programs.[4] Reagan’s successors were trapped by the effectiveness of his anti-government and anti-expenditure rhetoric. G.H.W. Bush, forced into assuring the American public that he would not raise taxes, told the public, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Prevailing anti-expenditure sentiment forced President Clinton to reduce relatively successful federal programs. And George W. Bush, continued the same theme, telling the people repeatedly that you can use “your money” better.

Politicians are saddled with the curse of being part of a system of government the people came to despise. Revelations of the damage done by campaign funding deepened that feeling and curdled reactions to the one method of campaign funding that would not lead to more corruption – public funding of political campaigns. Public funding of presidential election campaigns, through small federal tax credits, came about partly in reaction to Watergate. But support for the program has declined steadily since.

Americans have not always been as hostile to government as they are now. Responsible and effective government were this country’s major contributions to civilization, coming out of the 1776-1783 revolutionary struggle and the birth of the Constitution in 1787. From the Eisenhower Administration, when people were first polled about confidence in government, and well into the 60s, three-quarters of the public trusted government most of the time. Only twenty-five percent of the public do now.

But now, Americans have decided that government and politicians are bad. People don’t want to give politicians anything – except for funding police and the armed services. Making public funding possible is intertwined with these larger questions of whether government can be trusted with anything. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been talking about smart investment. The public has little patience for failure, even though success, public or private, usually follows failed experiments.  So the future of public funding is linked to changing attitudes about government, politicians and the possibility that they can make smart investments. Many things could be done better, and ultimately more cheaply, if we were willing to invest.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 2, 2016.

[1] On wedge issues, see Christine Watkins, Gun Control: The Debate and Public Policy, quoting Eric Zorn, “Librarians Take a Risky Stand on Full Access to the Web,” Chicago Tribune (June 5, 1997).  On changed attitudes, see Michael J. Robinson,  Television and American politics: 1956-1976, Public Interest, Number 48, 3-39 (Summer 1977).

[2] See Nat’l Comm. on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Final Report: To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquility (1969).

[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012).

[4] David Stockman, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (1986).

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