Love Democracy? Prove it by Investing in its Future

Love Democracy? Prove it by Investing in its Future
John B. Opdycke

After a hiatus during the war, President Bush begins fundraising again Wednesday, when he is scheduled to be the big draw at a dinner for congressional Republicans. Unless the Supreme Court decides otherwise, those House and Senate contenders and the 2004 presidential candidates, Bush included, will be playing under a new set of spending rules Congress passed last year. Supposedly, these new rules will make it harder for big-money contributors — the much-maligned special interests — to have their way with the American electoral process. But here’s the unanswered question: Who will step in to take their place?
Campaign finance reformers have focused their efforts on limiting the influence of the wealthy. But our democracy is not a finished product, a spectator sport that need only to be defended from the corrupting influence of the well-heeled. For democracy to flourish, the citizenry must work continuously to develop and improve it. We must invest our time, our energy — and our money.

Unfortunately, few Americans do so. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, less than half a percent of adult Americans gave $200 or more to a candidate or party during 2000. A third of the money raised during the 2000 president campaign came from a mere 15,000 individuals, and the largest 100 special interest groups gave about 30% of all the money raised in federal campaigns. Because they dominate political giving, these special interest groups shape our nation’s political agenda.

In charity we trust

Contrast this to philanthropy, where individual giving overshadows institutional involvement.

According to Giving USA 2002, individual Americans gave $177.05 billion to charity in 2001. Nine out of 10 households contribute to charitable organizations, Independent Sector reports. Institutions account for only 16.5% of charitable giving.

Our culture encourages giving to improve the well-being of our communities, cure disease, ease suffering and preserve natural resources. So Americans give willingly, and see the value of giving, to these causes. But they have been fooled into thinking that they don’t need to invest in the development of our greatest national treasure: our democracy.

Of course, there are justifiable reasons why we don’t give politically. Contributions are no longer tax deductible. Both major parties use funds on distasteful negative campaigns, attack mailings and manipulative “issue” ads. Contributing $100 to a homeless shelter makes you feel good. Giving $100 to a political campaign can leave you feeling in need of a shower.

Put money on it

To improve the conduct of political campaigns and ensure that vital issues are debated and discussed, however, Americans must apply their philanthropic know-how to the political arena. They must become the primary financiers of political life, if they are to be reconnected to the political process.

Although further regulating the supply of special-interest dollars will not change the status quo, some steps could encourage giving, such as restoring the tax exemption for political contributions. But the country also needs a new breed of political reformers whose focus is not on getting the money out of politics, but getting the people into politics — as voters, as educated citizens and as donors.

These politically involved individual contributors could fund candidates who are willing to talk about the controversial issues — comprehensive election reform, school vouchers, legalized marijuana, national health care, trade policy — that special interests now keep off the table. They could finance candidates, initiatives, petition drives, debates, forums and grassroots campaigns to shift control away from special interests.

Today’s “dumbed-down” campaigns will not change overnight. Nor will the power and influence of special interests vanish immediately. But any positive change in our electoral system will require the philanthropic participation of the American people.

The impulse to “get the money out of politics” is understandable. But the bigger issue is getting the people in.

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