Beyond Channeling Money

This is the sixth and last in a series on Money in Politics

Money finds ways to influence the political system despite our efforts to prohibit or replace it. It’s like a balloon that bulges wherever it can, or water that finds any path to cause trouble. Limits on contribution and gifts matter. But prohibitions aren’t enough. They just force politicians to spend more time looking for money and find ways around the limits. Even public funding for election campaigns isn’t a magical solution that will banish every problem in a puff of public green.

There are many problems we can solve to improve the rules of self-government. Employees deserve some protections. Employers can and some do pressure workers, make them go to some candidates’ talks, or give them work to do in political campaigns. Employer requests are hard to resist for fear of demotion, or other damaging consequences. We restrict sexual invitations to workers to avoid subtle or not-so-subtle intimidation. For similar reasons, employees deserve political protection on the job.

Still, we need more than prohibitions and public money. Parties were once the people’s answer to the power of money. Without parties, the wealthy and well-connected would rule. Parties were promptly corrupted, so Americans adopted primaries. Primaries shifted power to individual candidates and their organizations, and shifted power from the center of the voting population to majorities of primary voters, who tend to be much more extreme. That offers what Barry Goldwater, in his losing 1964 presidential bid, called “a choice, not an echo.” But it can also polarize politics and create a politics that almost nobody wants.

Most important for the future is how we prepare ourselves. We’ve been telling each other since the Revolution that we need an educated public. Unfortunately, many schools no longer educate people in relevant ways. We graduate students who have little idea who or how government is run, what our history is, or any understanding of the economic and social issues of our time. We complain that immigrants will not respect our ways, but leave the majority of natural-born Americans ignorant of how America came to be America. We need to do better.

What I see as truly encouraging is that this election has drawn many people into politics out of a real sense of public duty. I remember earlier waves like those that Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the civil rights and feminist movements drew into politics. I hope those of you whom Hillary, Bernie and Obama drew into politics will stay active and not become discouraged because all our dreams cannot be achieved quickly. I hope you’ll enjoy mixing with others door to door, in community meetings, house parties, barbeques, and otherwise staying in touch with the people.

I do think we can make life better. I don’t think we should expect a political heaven on earth. A large part of politics is about resolving differences of perspective, interests and needs – many of them legitimate on all sides. It’s not just about getting things done. It’s also about disagreement, conflict and compromise. Few of us ever get complete victories, and probably shouldn’t. But finding decent solutions to problems that divide people is also the challenge and one of the truly honorable tasks of democratic government.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 9, 2016.

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