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Saturday, 24 April 2010 16:20

Clean Election - New book on public campaign financing

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Creating Political Equality: American Elections as a Public Good, by Jay R. Mandle, April, 2010, Academica Press, LLC

Jay R. Mandle's 2007 book, Democracy, America, and the Age of Globalization, addressed jobs lost to globalization as a major cause of the growing American income inequality gap. He made the case that the U. S. government sets policies that help create the problem but does little to offset the loss of jobs with counterbalancing economic and social policy. He contends that the government will not - cannot - change these practices while our political  elections continue to be privately financed.

In his new book, Mandle turns his attention to privately financed elections as the fundamental cause of inequality in American political representation. He treats political inequality as a systemic problem, avoiding the stereotypes of grasping politicians in the hire of sinister corporations that is common in many political writings on the topic. His message is that politicians don't need to be greedy, and corporations don't need to be vile: a system of  privately financed elections necessarily leads to government policy being dominated by a small elite, high up the income ladder. Mandle claims that only by changing the system can political equality be extended to all the population, and he gives some insight why the liberal community has been unable to effect this change until now.

The opening chapter develops Mandle's reasoning for treating elections as a public good, such as national defense or the superhighway system, which are both publicly financed. He cites earlier economists whose market-based models for elections have either ignored the effect of political donations, or else dismissed donors as mere political consumers without significant political influence. Mandle characterizes the current political system instead as an "under-supplied" market in which a very small portion of the population provides all the financing, while the large majority are "free riders" on their expenditures. Investors in such an economic system wield  considerable power, and in Mandle's model political contributors are investors who wield considerable power over the government policy. The free riders share in the political outcomes, whether they benefit or lose by them, but they have no influence. Mandle asserts that treating elections as a public good would spread the political influence more equitably through the population.

Chapter 2 gives a brief and interesting history of U. S. political financing and related legislation, beginning with George Washington. Much of this information will be new to the political layman. In what may be a surprise to some readers, Mandle claims the 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation (BCRA), despite imposing limits on soft money, actually made the situation worse by almost doubling allowed donations by individuals. Overall, campaign finance legislation to date has been ineffective, either because it attacked the wrong problem, or was riddled with  loopholes that led to abuse, or was not enforced.

Chapter 3 uses public campaign finance records to demonstrate the dominance of large political donors over election results. Contributions greater than $200 comprise a large majority of Congressional campaign funds, and there is a strong correlation between the incumbents' winning ratio (generally well above 90%) to their strong financial advantage over challengers. Despite increased small donations in recent elections (much has been made of Howard Dean's and President Obama's success with internet campaigns) Mandle contends that the early entry of large donors is the determining factor for who gets to run, and that small donors play a strictly subordinate role when it comes to control over the election process and access following the elections. He uses the analogy of venture capitalists who take some risk up front and then hold the reins of power and the lions' share of the profit when a successful venture goes public.

Chapter 4 debunks the notion that recent campaigns have empowered small donors. Despite the fact that small donations made up a larger part of the campaign finances in the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns than before, even those small donations come mostly from the upper reaches of the economy. By comparison to the successes of the full public financing models used in Maine and Arizona, Mandle believes that a system of small donor-based private financing will only shift the donor population from the wealthy to the nearly wealthy. In his view, the small donor system is still a system of private financing, and can therefore only fail.  Only by treating elections as a public good, i.e., by publicly financed elections, can the problem be solved.

Chapters 5 - 7 present current events supporting the model of political investors: climate change, financial system regulation and health care reform. In each case, strong popular majority opinion is trumped by political investors ... "What fundamentally unites all three cases is the fact that the money that donors provide to politicians drives a deep wedge between the public's preference and the policies that office holders promote and enact."

Mandle ends the book with a nod to social progress in suffrage, labor, and civil rights, but also claims that these gains have been severely attenuated because the liberal movements behind them have been unwilling or unable to challenge the dominance of private wealth over the political system. "Treating the electoral process as a public good is the necessary step that has to be taken to rebalance the relationship between the economy and politics." The effort to make this change must come from the left, and it can only be accomplished by a coalition in which organizations are willing to give priority to a publicly financed political system alongside their specific social issues.

Progressive activists reading this book will wish Mandle had continued to chapter 9 and provided the playbook for how to accomplish such a tremendous task as displacing private wealth from its perch atop the political system.

Fred Markham

Chairman SCPA Clean Elections Committee

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