Money, interest groups are corrupting democracy

July 21, 1996|By Bill Bradley

WASHINGTON -- We tend to think of democracy as a static thing -- we call it a ''form of government'' in school, or we say with pride, ''I live in a democracy.''

But democracy is not a mountain or a machine; it's a living idea, an attitude of mind, a spiritual testament. It grows, as it grew with the nation and stretched across the seas through the influence of our example.

The question becomes: Is our democracy responding, honestly and creatively, to the fears and the aspirations of most families? Has our democracy responded to the four great transformations of the economy -- the end of the Cold War, the globalization of markets, the debt burden and the information revolution?

As one who entered politics with a belief that government could make people's lives better and more secure, it pains me that the political process seems almost willfully deaf to the economic anxieties of nonwealthy Americans.

Republicans cling to the illusion that government is the problem -- even the enemy of freedom -- and that less government and free markets will automatically relieve the fears of working Americans. Democrats cling to old programs, such as worker retraining, without stopping to ask whether those programs are actually working to change lives for the better or whether jobs are available for the workers we're training.

Democracy today is paralyzed not just because politicians are needlessly partisan, although we are. The process is broken at a deeper level, and it won't be fixed by replacing one set of elected officials with another, any more than it was fixed in 1992 or 1994. Citizens affected by the choices we have to make about spending and regulation simply don't trust that the choice was made fairly or independently, or in some cases even democratically.

Underneath this justifiable mistrust are two corrupting forces: One is the power of money in politics. The other is the increasing domination of political discourse by interest groups that are not only contributors to political candidates, but increasingly dominate the information that flows between government and citizens through direct mail, talk radio, phone and fax networks.

Money not only determines who is elected, it determines who runs for office. Sometimes it determines what government accomplishes, or fails to accomplish. Under the current system, Congress inevitably will listen to the 900,000 Americans who give $200 or more to their campaigns ahead of the 259 million who don't.

But as politicians are steered too often by money, the citizens they are trying to represent are steered just as often by the clutter of interest groups and the mistrust sewn by their professional staffers in Washington, making it all the more difficult for elected officials to see and follow the path of the true public interest.

Interest groups try to take our voices and turn them into single-minded protests on behalf of our most narrow identity: gun owner, senior, pro-choice, small businessperson, environmentalist, smoker.

Legislation will not necessarily change the role of interest groups so that citizens can participate fully in democracy. But government can change -- has an obligation to change -- the role of money in politics.

Real reform of democracy, deep enough to restore public trust and get government moving again, must begin by completely breaking the connection between money and politics. It must eliminate all the interested money -- that is, money with the possibility of strings attached, from all congressional races. To free our democracy from the power of money, I believe we have to start with two straightforward principles:

First, money is not speech. Contrary to what the Supreme Court said in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case, a rich man's wallet does not merit the same protection as a poor man's soapbox. That's why I propose a constitutional amendment that would allow the federal government and the states to limit total spending in a campaign as well as how much a politician can contribute to his or her own campaign.

Strings attached

Second, we must admit that all interested money in politics is potentially corrupting. Whether it comes from an individual, a PAC or a candidates' own investments, it sometimes comes with strings attached, and limiting one source will only open up others. We need comprehensive reform that eliminates all interested money from politics and equalizes funding so that candidates can be judged by their ideas.

Giving voters control over campaigns will return democracy to the people, thereby freeing it from the power of money. But a real revitalization of democracy will require deeper change.

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