Thursday, July 5, 2007

TPM Cafe 7/5/2007

From TPM Cafe:

Political Reform with People In It

There's a common theme to Nathan Newman's post, "Campaign Finance Reform is Dead; Long Live Clean Money," and Dan Cantor's welcome visit to the "Table for One" to talk about fusion voting and the Working Families Party in New York, and it's not just that I agree with both of them.

Rather, both are pointing toward a new way of thinking about the political process, and steps toward reform, that puts people back in -- people, and the possibilities of organized power.

There's a reason that purely limit-based campaign finance reform will inevitably run into a dead end, as it did in the Supreme Court last week when the Court effectively (and quite predictably) overturned the McCain-Feingold regulation on broadcast ads that mention a candidate for office in the weeks before the election. It's that reformers view the problem as money, particularly "big money," and set out to protect elections (but only elections) from this corrupting force. But in trying to shut out money, they have to go chasing after one loophole after another, and after a while, everything starts to look like a loophole. Yes, an anti-abortion group in Wisconsin running ads calling on Senator Feingold not to oppose Bush's judicial appointments might be -- and in part is -- sending a message to vote against Feingold. But it is also doing what it claims to be doing, which is an expression by an organized group of citizens of a view on an issue -- which is fundamentally protected expression. And that expression can't be neatly separated from elections. If the goal of reform is defined as chasing down big money wherever it is to be found, it will inevitably end up chasing money down rabbit holes where regulation doesn't fit -- and shouldn't. It's a stale, limited, airless way of looking at the problem that doesn't have any room for the complexity and flux of real politics.

(It is telling that reformers denounce the WRTL decision on the grounds that it would put "corporate" money back into politics. Which it would. But what is the "corporation" involved here? It's not Wal-Mart or Halliburton; it's the Wisconsin Right to Life organization itself, an incorporated entity. As are most political or social organizations. Yes, money from for-profit corporations could flow through these organizations, and organizations could be created that are shells. But the WRTL case shows that from fighting "corporate" or organized money, it is very hard to avoid fighting political organization itself.)

This is not just the logical fallacy of limits-based campaign finance reform. It's the fundamental hostility to politics that reformers of democracy are prone to. They tend to hold an implicit view of democracy as a process of isolated rational decision-making that must be shielded from bad influences -- money, organized groups, passion.

But those are the very things that make democracy work: participation, and the ability of people to exercise power collectively, to debate and act together. If you see the question in those terms, then things that enhance people's ability to organize and aggregate their power -- whether it is the Wisconsin Right to Life committee or ACORN or a union or the Sierra Club or a political party or -- become the solution, not the problem. As Nathan points out, voluntary full public financing -- which has never yet lost a constitutional challenge and grows more popular by the election in Maine and Arizona -- is one way to enhance speech. These systems require some way to prevent the limited public funds from being overwhelmed by outside money, so they often provide extra funds to candidates who face attacks such as the Wisconsin Right to Life committee's. These provisions might be constitutionally vulnerable on the same basis as the BCRA law, but they are very different and so far they have not been overruled. But systems that use public funds to match small contributions -- small donor democracy -- are a little more flexible and probably have less need for disincentives to outside money, because candidates are not asked to accept a strictly limited and relatively low level of spending. These systems are not just second-best to McCain-Feingold-type limits-based reforms, they are morally and practically superior -- because they retain a greater role for human passion, intensity, and organization -- and we should be grateful to the Court for drawing a line under limits-based reform and quickening the arrival of a new era in which reforms seek to expand the ability for candidates to run and new voices to be heard, rather than restrict it.

Similarly. fusion voting is a modest question on its face: Can a political party sometimes endorse candidates from another party and sometimes run its own candidates, or must it always run its own candidates exclusively? Most people would say, "why not?" to the first part, which is why fusion has some hope of attracting broad support and as a neutral rule, it doesn't obviously advantage any faction. But it has major implications. Without fusion, the only political organizations that can have the clout that comes with a line on the ballot are the broad and clunky coalitions that are the two major parties, or third parties that will usually be symbolic and transient. There will be issue groups, of course, on the right and left, trying desperately to use money and/or membership to be heard, and sometimes being effective. And there will be attempts at broader coalitions, like and USAction, and I think (hope) the trend is toward broader progressive coalitions and away from single-issue politics. That's long overdue. But such coalitions, especially at the state level, are fragile, they demand continued energy and there are always as many forces pulling people away as pulling them together. But over time it becomes apparent that the ultimate coalition is a political party. A party is not a letterhead alliance; it's a substantive ongoing operation with a significant asset: a line on the ballot. With fusion, it can share that line or use it for its own purposes. The party can exist both within and outside of the other major parties, as the Working Families Party does in New York. It is a way of organizing people's political passion and power that, for a change, does not depend completely on money.

The first thing we should ask about any reform is, does it help or hurt the ability of citizens to organize themselves in a political context? Limits-based campaign finance reform fails that test. But public financing, especially open-ended matching systems, pass the test, and so does fusion.