Los Angeles (Thursday, August 17)
Most of us in the political writing racket regard reforming campaign finance as the top priority for cleaning up politics. Without new laws to get the big money out, corporations will continue to dictate government policy on everything from alternative energy to zoological parks.
Here at the Shadow Convention, a slew of speakers stabbed at the beast with every wordly weapon they could wield.
Co-convener Common Cause has 200,000 concerned members. President Scott Harshbarger said "Our challenge is to show people that only with reform can we successfully re-claim our democracy."
So political office is out of reach of ordinary people. Public Campaign, another co-convener, advocates ending politicians' dependence on private money. Founder Ellen Miller said big-money interests screen candidates and the vast majority of Americans are shut out.
Naomi Klein, author of "No Logo," a book about corporate power, said "Things are getting worse but things are getting better. All over the world, activists are doing something about it. Just ask Nike, Shell Oil or Philip Morris." But Klein said the economic boom is being built on the backs of low-wage workers.
Rainforest Action Network President Randy Hayes said "The death of democracy is the death of diversity, the death of indigenous peoples, and the death of entire species of plants and animals."
Is it really that bad? Joshua Rosenkranz works on this issue every day as president of New York's Brennan Center for Justice. He suggested some term adjustments:
"Let's not call them elections -- let's call them auctions.
Let's not call them candidates -- let's call them canned commodities.
Let's not call them contributions -- let's call them investments.
Let's not call it free speech -- let's call it paid speech."
Rosenkranz explained that "soft" money is the problem, with the tab topping $500 million this year, more than double the previous record from 1996. There have been tight limits on "hard," or direct, political contributions starting back in 1907 with Teddy Roosevelt's efforts to prevent the purchase of politicians, but soft money now skirts aside the spirit of the statutes.
Funnelled through political action committees, these huge sums -- contributed by a minute minority of millionaires -- are then used for the benefit of the two major parties to pay for media advertising that carefully avoids phrases like "vote for, vote against" etc., although obviously advocating for a certain side.
Meanwhile, Joe Sixpack and Sally Soccermom are so disgusted by the avalanche of attack ads when they're trying to watch entrancing entertainment like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," that they tune out politics entirely and only a third of them even bother to vote.
Which, of course, suits the suits just fine. With citizens voting in small numbers, especially the poor and the young, those political action committees see a rich return on their speculative spending by electing candidates who won't make waves.
If candidates with a conscience could be elected they might make waves about things like Congress' $70 billion giveaway of the public airwaves to broadcast media, which Al Gore championed. They might make waves about the oil companies gouging us at the gas pump or the insurance companies blocking coverage for 11 million poor kids in America.
In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that limiting campaign contributions could not be done because it would be a violation of freedom of speech. Lately, several justices have indicated a willingness to re-consider.
Let's hope they do -- for the sake of freedom from tyranny.
Frank Lingo is on special assignment at the Shadow Convention in L.A. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. For a free excerpt of his new novel, visit earthvote.net