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Beyond “Lesser of Two Evils”

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No one needs a long lecture about how thoroughly the U.S. Congress has squandered “the consent of the governed.” It’s no secret that the current campaign finance system enables and reinforces Congress’s preferential treatment of wealthy donors and their corporate masters. The exclusive access and legislative consideration they enjoy are the expected ‘return’ on their investment. So, when push comes to shove about a crucial decision, voters can forget about their phone calls, letters or protests—they don’t stand a chance against the tsunami of large donor dollars that fills an incumbent’s (or challenger’s) campaign fund every election season.

Even after a clear majority of voters have voiced their support for a balanced approach to resolving the debt-ceiling impasse, their showing wielded no influence on legislators who were bent on forcing a national default. Indeed, Tea Party pols rushed in… 

Given such dim prospects for fair, accountable representation, voters return to the polls every election with the task of choosing between “the lesser of two evils”—and regrettably they believe this is a cemented status quo, since this is how it has always been. To imagine and believe otherwise is where we should begin: to see and know that with enough effort and cooperation among voters we can elect representatives worthy of our trust; legislators whose decisions remain transparent and accountable to vigilant electors.

Toward that end it is worth mentioning one or two initiatives in politics just peering over the horizon. They present a couple of the best, though underdeveloped, prospects for voter-responsive governance.

Calling the current U.S. tax code an “insanely complicated system of special favors to the richest and most powerful in our society,” former Louisiana governor Charles “Buddy” Roemer has recently re-entered the political arena to declare his candidacy for the 2012 presidential race.  Front and center in his platform is campaign finance reform.  To underscore his commitment to the issue he has sworn off PAC money as well as any individual contribution greater than $100.

While everyone should applaud his initiative, one of his arguments about election financing could benefit from some fine tuning. Reform should not limit how much any donor can give, he asserts. Rather, every voter should contribute to the candidacy he or she favors. Since Congress remains dependent on large-dollar donors, “our first objective must be to remove this dependency by expanding the number of givers…”  Doing so will “balance the system,” he insists.

Keep in mind that almost 60 percent of the funds raised by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign came from donors who gave less than $1000. In spite of aggregating the majority share of Obama’s funding, one can trust that very few of those givers enjoyed the access and consideration granted to the likes of a Robert Wolf or Blair Effron. In spite of that small-donor majority share in Campaign Obama’s 2008 victory, the president still went with the Wall Street- friendly appointees and economic advisors.

Another emerging reform phenomenon to take notice of is an organization called Americans Elect (AE). So far it has signed up 1.7 million voters with the intent of qualifying in all 50 states to run a small-’i’ independent candidate for president in 2012. With plans for “the first ever!” open primary scheduled for June 2012, AE aims to give rank-and-file voters of any- or no- party affiliation the chance to participate as delegates.

From a first glance, AE appears as a well-coordinated attempt to connect voters directly to the nominating process. However, its website gives no information about the group’s leadership and funding. These omissions resemble the kind of secrecy that never bodes well for accountability to voters. (Paired with the July 28 Los Angeles Times profile of the group was an article with a link to its board of directors roster just recently distributed.)

Looking at AE’s “About” page, what neglected and downtrodden voter could dismiss seductive appeals like “A greater voice for all Americans, no matter their party. Every registered voter can be a delegate. Any constitutionally-eligible citizen can be a candidate”? Or a gem like “The power to choose your candidate in the 2012 election? Real issues. Real candidates. Real votes.”

Yet trouble abounds for this wired and well-oiled machine. Among a number of complicities that gum up its purported independence, most obvious are the organization’s disavowal of influence by any special- or corporate interests (thanks goes to Jim Cook’s Irregular Times, which has charted AE’s story from what appears its beginning). However, a significant fraction of its 50-member board of directors seats investment industry insiders; and, perhaps even more damning, includes the presence of Morton Meyerson, chairman of Alsbridge, who the company credits as an “innovator of a concept called outsourcing.” That alone should earn plenty of praise from the “vocationally-challenged” community.

All complicities aside, the crucial element to campaign funding reform that Gov. Roemer and Americans Elect overlook is how influence is cultivated and wielded. It is only very recently that a critical mass of voters have begun to recognize the impact of PACs, large-dollar donors, and the lobbyist apparatus. It has had the effect of thwarting their physical, political, and economic destinies.

It is doubtful that Roemer or AE would make a point to remind many voters of their own responsibilities as citizens in our democratic republic: to stay informed; to continually engage elected officials as well as one another.  Least of all would either candidate or organization impress upon Americans to vote only for candidates who refuse any donation greater than $200 per individual per year. That determination has to be self-realized.

The immense financial resources required of a campaign for public office no one underestimates. In place of the oceans of cash necessary to achieve “viability,” a motivated and organized class of voters could make known their solidarity for at least one goal: to eliminate money’s obligating influence upon an incumbent or challenger.

What if a plurality of voters within any congressional district committed to this citizen-imposed limit?  And while they’re at it, draft candidates willing to abide by this limit.  It’s the only campaign pledge of any merit with the most far-reaching impact. Establishment candidates would seriously have to consider whether to embrace the campaign finance limit, or face losing the election. No matter which candidate won the election, all voters would be the winners for having the resolve to reassert their “consent.”

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