When money talks

November 06, 1996|By John Brain

MONEY TALKS, the saying goes, and most people think that in politics it talks out of turn. Influencing elections with campaign contributions is denounced as corrupting democracy, as PACs, corporations and pressure groups vie to influence elections and ultimately the votes of the candidates they support. We're shocked, shocked. Everywhere the cry goes up for campaign-finance reform.

But wait a minute.

The democratic ideal has always been just that, a pleasant fiction of popular government by the people for the people and of the people. In practice, democratic government has always been controlled by dominant elites occasionally subject to the consent of a carefully screened electorate. From a realistic perspective, democracy is largely a PR stratagem for engineering the consent of the governed.

Patrician aristocrats

In America today the power elite is drawn not from a governing class of patrician aristocrats, as in the 18th century, but from a pool of ambitious leaders who own or manage the nation's mammoth organizations: corporations, trade and professional associations, unions, ethnic and religious groups, the PACs and of course government itself at all levels. These are the real players on the political scene, and their power is expressed in terms of money.

Some see this process as a corruption of democracy, but only if we accept the democratic ideal in all its naivete. Those who urge campaign-finance reform would do well to ponder whether the government of a complex modern nation is best controlled by a majority of ignorant voters, or by an aristocratic elite, or by major business corporations, or by ethnic or religious groups, or by the defense establishment, or whatever.

A role to play

Clearly all have a role to play as stakeholders, and maybe PAC contributions are as good a way as any to introduce reality into the democratic ideal.

A government sensitive to pressure groups is not ''corrupt,'' but rather balanced and functional. We are naive if we believe that legislation springs from the creative imaginations of inspired legislators.

Most legislation results from the advocacy of pressure groups, and quite often is actually written by their lobbyists.

Countervailing pressure

At the same time, it is often opposed by pressure groups and lobbyists on the other side of the issue, and the outcome is workable legislation.

In America today citizens can vote at infrequent intervals and do influence elections, but if they want to exercise hands-on influence, they must join and support organizations which mobilize voting blocs and raise money to lobby legislators.

Our current laws relating to the handicapped, the environment, endangered species, employment security, education and other subjects were spearheaded by citizens who organized, raised money and advocated change.

At the same time, industry groups had their own agendas, but legitimately represented the profit motive and the interests of corporations.

A balance of interests

Pragmatically, this ''corrupt democracy'' produces a balance between the interests of ordinary citizens and their desire for clean air, clean water, pure food, a safe workplace and so on, and the interest of those who manage businesses and have to make a profit to survive, and all the other stakeholders in society.

We don't want to return to the bad old days of Boss Tweed and the Robber Barons. So we should admit that General Motors and Microsoft and Boeing, et al., deserve a place at the table along with John Q. Citizen.

In theory, a system might be devised whereby all these players RTC had blocks of votes to cast depending on their importance to society, but it would be unmanageable and no one would agree on the evaluation.

Instead, we allow organizations to have influence in proportion to the money they contribute and political parties -- a rough and ready expedient, but better than outright bribery.

Powerful interest groups are going to make their influence felt in the political arena one way or another, whatever reforms are made. The best we can hope for is a working compromise, beginning with full disclosure. That will have to do, until genetic research enables us to come up with a breed of philosopher kings.

John Brain writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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