When we look at modern elections in the United States, it's hard to escape the conclusion that they have degenerated into an undemocratic sham. No longer are political campaigns conducted by newspaper editorials and printed pamphlets filled with discussions of public policy, but rather by massive waves of thirty-second television or radio spots, financed by corporations that have their own selfish interests at heart. When the incumbency rate of members of Congress is usually as high as 90%, even while public approval of Congress is very low, it's obvious that something is very wrong.
Money rather than ideas has emerged as the deciding factor in who wins a congressional election. Corporate interests of all sorts have established large-scale operations designed to funnel massive amounts of campaign money to political candidates. Because political candidates depend on this money to finance their electoral campaigns, these corporations utterly dwarf ordinary citizens in the influence they have on the actions of office-holders. If an office-holder toes the line, the corporations will keep the money flowing; if not, the money stops. If that's not bribery, I don't know what is.
Incumbent members of Congress, by doing favors for powerful corporations, are able to count on massive financial resources for their reelection campaigns. Consequently, it is always difficult if not impossible for ordinary citizens to challenge sitting members of Congress (or, for that matter, state and local office-holders), because there is simply no way for them to raise the necessary amounts of money to be competitive.
This problem became much more acute last year, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. In a highly flawed 5-4 decision which overturned several strong legal precidents, the Supreme Court ruled that no government regulation can limit the amount of money a corporation can spend in support of a political candidate. This has already opened the floodgates for a wave of corporate money that is now pouring into our political system, making an already bad situation much worse.
But there is a policy in operation in some states which might provide some relief: public financing of elections. If qualified candidates have access to public funds with which to launch a respectable political campaign, the power of incumbency can be greatly reduced, and the corrupt practices that have bedeviled politics in recent decades would be reduced along with it.
We can examine whether or not such a system would work by looking at the successes and failures of it on the state level. 14 states now provide some form of public financing to certain types of candidates, but let us take the state of Maine as a case-in-point for how public financing can make electoral politics more democratic and equitable.
In 1996, the Pine Tree State passed the Maine Clean Elections Act, which provided for public funds for candidates running for Governor, the State Senate, or the State House. In order to quality, candidates had to demonstrate a reasonable level of public support by raising a certain amount of money in $5 donations. Once they crossed the threshold, they qualified for public funds and could no longer accept private donations.
The program has been a great success, with more than four out of five candidates for the Maine State Legislature using the program. This has largely eliminated the power of corporations to unduly influence the legislation passed in Maine, giving control of the legislative process back to the people where it belongs. In recent gubernatorial elections, the Democratic and Republican candidates have been forced to compete with competitively-financed independent candidates, greatly enlivening the electoral contests. This kind of vibrant competition for office is the lifeblood of a truly energetic republic, and what the Founding Fathers would have wanted to see.
Imagine taking the example of Maine and applying it on a national scale for elections to Congress. A system in which candidates for Congress had access to a reasonably level of public financing, provided that they met certain criteria and agreed not to accept other forms of funding, would inject our political discourse with new energy and more options for voters. No longer would the corporate-controlled candidates have the field all to themselves every two years, facing either minimal opposition from underfunded candidates or no opposition at all. The rotation in office, so important to the survival of a vibrant democracy, would be greatly increased, and even incumbent Congressmen would be forced to act more responsibly if faced with genuine opposition every election cycle.
By itself, public financing for congressional elections would not solve the problem of corporate dominance of the political process. It is likely that candidates who choose not to accept public financing would, in most cases, be able to spend more money than candidates who do. But it would be a great step forward if it could be implemented, and would at least give a voice to those citizens running for office who are not in hock to the corporate political machine.
Of course, the very people who would have the most to lose are the very ones who would have to pass it, so it will be a long struggle to get such a program passed. Furthermore, some of the state-level public financing programs are facing court challenges. But as with all such reforms, the fact that it won't be easy to make it a reality cannot deter us from making the effort. We'd better get started now.