Written by: Joe Morris Doss
Americans report a lack of agency; most seem to feel that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.
The problem of the dominant influence of money is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats should agree, a deal-breaking problem that, as the late Senator John Stennis of Mississippi was the first to report, is truly a threat to democracy. Perhaps it will prove helpful to have a committed conservative speak to the problem from a traditionally conservative perspective.
Richard Painter was President George W. Bush’s White House counselor and presently teaches law at the University of Minnesota. No one can challenge his conservative credentials. Mr. Painter has written a recently published book: Taxation Only With Representation: The Conservative Conscience and Campaign Finance Reform. Bill Moyers interviewed him about the book on April 21 of this year; the following is largely Mr. Painter’s voice, offered as clearly as possible and without interpretation.
“I think the Court was wrong in that decision. I don’t think that reversing the Citizens United decision is going to solve the problem…That decision certainly did a lot of damage, but we need to do a lot more than go back to 2008, before the Citizens United case, to fix this problem. I think it was a cesspool. It’s just that the Supreme Court has made the cesspool that much worse with a string of very problematic decisions including Citizens United and McCutcheon [v. FEC] and some others.”
“The politicians of both political parties have become dependent upon campaign money from vested interests. And that has led to a situation where people, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are adamantly opposed to campaign finance reform even though the vast majority of voters, including voters who support them, want campaign finance reform.”
“The elected officials in both parties are receiving campaign contributions and support through electioneering communications from groups that aren’t technically affiliated with the campaigns, but really are. That’s the off-the-books financing of electioneering communications that’s going on.”
“Having a representative democracy requires the confidence of the voters in the system. And if voters lose confidence in the system they can make some very bad decisions. I think we have a lot of very angry voters. And we need to be cognizant of the fact that if we don’t have public confidence in the system it’s going to be easy for demagoguery to take over and for voters to flock to the type of candidate who promises an authoritarian regime or something like that. And it’s not a good situation. It’s what destroyed the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s — lack of public confidence in the representative democracy — and it’s a problem that we could deal with here in the United States.”
“The American experiment with representative democracy has been a great success, but we need to realize that it needs to be a genuine representative democracy where ordinary people have a vote, have a voice in choosing the candidates who represent them. And if we don’t address this issue we could easily see a situation where oligarchy, as a political system, that oligarchy is (viewed as) a more persuasive system where people will flock to authoritarian government and other alternatives.”
“(Conservatives should be)…worried about national security concerns. Corporate wealth is global in a global economy. We’re going to have money coming into our elections from China, from the Middle East, from all over the world. These are not necessarily countries that are hostile to the United States — sometimes they are, sometimes not — but there’s a fundamental principle at stake here: Should the United States government be chosen by the American people or by well-to-do interests, by moneyed interests, in other countries?”
“That’s why we fought the American Revolution, over that issue. We have preserved our independence for over 200 years. But if we don’t want the United States government carved up into spheres of influence by foreign powers in a global economy, we need to do something about this problem. It’s a very serious problem and I’ve outlined in the book about a dozen ways in which foreign money can get into United States elections.”
“There are about a dozen ways of getting that foreign money into our elections, whether or not Justice Alito, or anyone else, thinks it’s legal. And this I’ve analogized to the twenty-one-year-old drinking age. It’s illegal to drink under the age of twenty-one. But I can assure you it’s a lot easier to get foreign money into a US election than it is to get booze onto the typical college campus in the freshman dormitory.”
“…what do political conservatives lose with our present system of campaign finance? They lose faith in limited government, right?”
“Yes. You’re going to have more government spending for more expensive government contracts. You’re going to have regulation that is designed to appease those who make the largest contributions, but regulation often hinders small business in favor of big businesses. And even with respect to big businesses, many of them are in the situation where they have to pay money to politicians in order to get the regulatory regime they want. So you have lots of regulation, with lots of loopholes; each loophole bought with campaign contributions and then lobbied in by the K Street lobbyists. And that’s not the way our economy should be regulated at all.”