The most important Democratic crisis since the Great Depression

March 17, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- President Clinton asked American broadcasters last week to give free time to political candidates. He proposed that the Federal Communications Commission make this a condition for authorizing broadcasters to switch to digital technology.

He meant this to be a backfire lighted against the campaign-money conflagration threatening his White House. It is actually an essential remedy to the most important crisis of democracy the United States has experienced since the Great Depression.

Campaign finance's real cost

The scandal of campaign costs and finance has deeply corrupted the American system and squandered public trust. The latest National Opinion Research Center survey of American society -- one of a series begun 25 years ago -- shows 43 percent of the public with ''hardly any'' confidence in Congress, 47 percent with ''some'' confidence, and only 8 percent with a ''great deal'' of confidence. The equivalent figures for the executive branch are 42 percent ''hardly any'' confidence, 45 percent ''some,'' and 10 percent ''a great deal.''

The equivalent figures for 1973 showed 83 percent of the public with ''some'' or a ''great deal'' of confidence in Congress, and 79 percent with confidence in the executive branch. Only 15 percent expressed lack of confidence in Congress, and 18 percent for the executive branch. Yet in 1973 the Watergate scandal was in full course, and South Vietnam had already been effectively abandoned by Washington.

The threat to the country today is that it continues its slide -- already well advanced -- into plutocracy, where citizens will in disgust or ignorance have abandoned their government's powers to be fought over by enormous commercial interests.

Corporate money in immense amounts already dominates foreign policy, regulatory legislation, tax policy and the distribution of federal subsidies. Foreign political as well as corporate money is now making its bid for influence over Washington's decisions. The situation is worse under a Democratic administration, historically linked to the popular interest, than it was before, under the Republicans.

Selfishness and lust

Theodore Roosevelt avowed in 1902 that he would ''make [corporations] subserve the public good.'' The reform movement of the period attacked ''the alliance between organized wealth and machine politics,'' the same alliance that dominates America's major parties today.

Franklin Roosevelt excoriated ''malefactors of great wealth'' and in his 1935 campaign for a second term said, ''I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.''

It is unimaginable that Bill Clinton would speak such language today, nor any of George Bush's successors. The forces of selfishness and lust for power have invested the White House itself, as well as the Congress. Resistance has been marginalized, when not bought out.

Yet there is a way to solve this.

Money in today's quantities is essential to American politicians because every election is a huge transfer of public and private wealth to the broadcasting companies in reward for providing what in every other serious democracy the broadcasting systems provide free of cost: campaign time on the air.

The Washington journalist Paul Taylor 15 months ago launched a campaign to get just minutes of free time for candidates so as to reduce their dependence on contributors.

He met ferocious opposition from most broadcasters, who claimed that their air time and broadcasting frequencies are private property, and that requiring public-service air time would constitute expropriation. (The Federal Communications Commission was actually given the mandate in 1934 to assign frequencies -- assumed to be a public asset -- and to prescribe the nature of broadcasting services.)

Mr. Taylor's demands were necessarily modest because of an appalling Supreme Court decision that political expenditure is speech, hence protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. This implies that the richer you are the more free speech you possess, while those without money are proportionately denied free speech. It subverts the principles of campaign equilibrium and citizen access to office.

Broadcasters are the key

In practice it prevents any limitation on campaign advertising. If there is no limit on advertising, then there is no limit to the need of the candidate for money, and he or she is laid open to auction among those who have the money.

Because the United States is the oldest of the democracies, and its system has rarely seemed threatened, a sense of political invulnerability has always existed. Nothing really bad could happen to the United States, it was thought. That danger was for other countries.

Something bad could happen. Something bad has already happened. If the power that money today exercises over Congress and White House is not broken, America in the 21st century will bear little moral or political resemblance to America in the past.

Money has always been part of American politics, and the country has always been plutocratic as well as egalitarian. But in the past the forces were in some balance. Broadcasting has toppled the balance. It has radically changed the American system by establishing money as decisive in American public life, overwhelming all else.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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