America now a plutocracy, thanks to campaign financing

July 15, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- As the United States approaches the 2000 presidential race, in which more money will be spent than ever, the fact must be faced that America has become a plutocracy, rather than a democracy.

Money rules government. Moreover, the transformation is probably irreversible. The new system's invulnerability to reform is structural, the result of a series of political decisions and court rulings on the regulation and financing of political campaigns that have placed the cost of election beyond the means of all but a handful of private individuals.

Funding has to be found where the money is -- which is in corporate business and special-interest lobbies. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, himself a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has described the result as "nothing less than an influence-peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."

The enormous cost of elections follows from the fact that U.S. political campaigns are almost completely conducted through the broadcast media.This is unique among the world's major democracies.

The reliance on broadcast advertising, usually short television and radio spots, has (nearly everyone concedes) greatly debased the debate, causing nearly all campaigns to be framed in intellectually vacant, if not deliberately misleading or deceitful, slogans, accusations and manipulated images.

This has turned the country's elections into a regular and immense source of income for broadcasting and advertising companies. There is a vast transfer of private and public wealth into their coffers during each political campaign. They, and the campaign machinery of consultants, pollsters, fund-raisers and publicists who live off the system, have an obvious interest in blocking any significant change.

The very scale of the money tends to preclude a successful challenge to the system. Political incumbents, who tend to benefit most from the system, vote to maintain it, even when they dislike it, because they despair of changing it. The nation's politics are filled with challenge and controversy, but electoral reform proposals invariably fail to address the core problem, which is paid radio and TV campaign advertising.

Washington journalism is also part of the system, its role increasingly complicated by the drift toward covering politics in terms of personality and scandal, and by the recent and continuing concentration of media ownership in corporate conglomerates (Disney, Fox, Time Warner, General Electric etc.) whose larger interests in influencing public policy may conflict with the media's formal commitment to provide impartial information.

Effective legislative restriction of campaign spending has been blocked by a disastrous series of Supreme Court rulings (notably Buckley vs. Valeo in 1976), holding that money spent to win public office is an exercise of constitutionally protected free speech and cannot be limited.

A ban on broadcast campaign commercials would undoubtedly be struck down under the First Amendment, even if passed by Congress.

The federal requirement that in exchange for the broadcasters' free use of the public airwaves, they must provide "public interest" broadcasting -- including free campaign coverage and examination of public issues -- established by the Communications Act of 1934, was repealed during the Reagan administration.

Its reinstatement has been blocked by Congress, and is almost certainly a political impossibility.

Criticism of the system is widespread, yet there seems no great national discontent, certainly, no foment of rebellion against the rule of money in U.S. politics. Many Americans undoubtedly do not realize that other nations don't run their politics in this way, and that sensible alternatives exist to what, in the United States, has come seem normal.

However, the unrecognized but crucial reality is that even if Americans should come to recognize what has happened, and should wish to return to democracy from plutocracy (or, to be more exact, to restore the democratic foundations of their republican form of government), they could change nothing. Established constitutional interpretation and legal precedent, and the power of money in the legislative process, now can prevent any fundamental change.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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