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Campaign Finance Reform

Read the remarks from:
Curtis Gans

  • Round One

    Sen. John McCain
  • Round One

  • Susan Tolchin

    Part One Of Five

    "Political Anger and Campaign Finance Reform" *

    By Susan J. Tolchin
    March 26, 1997

    Among the many myths that comprised the conventional wisdom of the 1996 election, perhaps the least defensible was the perception of a contented electorate. A booming economy was said to have created satisfaction with both the political process and the incumbents who asked voters to return them to power.

    This election was devoid of anger, we were told. Ennui maybe; anger, no.

    The low turnout on election day alone should have put these myths to rest. A majority of eligible voters apparently felt a disconnect between themselves and their political leaders, concluding instead that this election would have little impact on their lives. In 1960, nearly 63 percent of the voters turned out to vote. This year, choosing the leader of the world's only superpower with less than 50 percent of the vote marked the lowest turnout since 1924; another percentage point would have pushed us back to 1824.

    Like fear and anxiety, apathy is a handmaiden of anger. In fact, on the front page of Wednesday morning's New York Times (March 27, 1997) Eric Schmitt quotes a caller on a Boston talk-radio program: "What's typically taken for apathy is not apathy, but great anger," he said. "We're in danger of losing our democracy or even our liberty unless we take action to correct it."

    Correct what? The nation's campaign finance system, of course. One of the leading sources of public anger, voters across the country are mystified by the fact that despite daily reports of scandals--all centering on campaign finance--genuine reform still seems very far away.

    Disgust, apathy, feelings of rage, all come together in what should be taken as serious warning signals to the nation's leaders. Indeed, each day brings new revelations--Chinese gun runners as invited guests in the White House; the Lincoln bedroom up for sale; foreign agents freely buying access and favorable trade treatment--any one of which would color an administration for all time. So far, all together, this seems to be Watergate, Teapot Dome, Iran-Contra, et. al., rolled into an incessant drumbeat that leaders ignore at their peril.

    Rather than focus on how many folks slept in the Lincoln bedroom or supped with the President, it would be better if the public focused on the seeds of reform, such as the McCain-Feingold bill, which faces what Schmitt calls an "uphill" battle to "revamp the nation's much maligned system of financing political races."

    Why uphill? Many reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of channeling political anger into constructive outlets. It is easier to let off steam on Rush Limbaugh or other talk shows that it is to master the details of legislation, or to put the time into the long, boring meetings that lead to organizational pressures to change the system.

    Representative democracy works only when people are interested enough to participate. Anger by itself isn't sufficient; you've got to be angry enough to throw those bags of tea overboard into Boston Harbor, not just fulminate about British taxes. And therein lies another warning sign of 1996: the record number of referenda (91) on the ballots in 20 states. What that means is that Americans no longer trust their elected officials to represent them properly on issues they really care about.

    Polls depicting the loss of confidence in government should also worry the victors, who can't seem to let go of the old system. Three out of four Americans trusted government in the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam war. Only 12 percent answer that question affirmatively today.

    The political anger that defined the 1990s has escalated, thanks to current revelations detailing the buying and selling of political America. The question is whether the victors can honestly address the current crisis, and hold on to their victory into the millennium.

    * Views stimulated by the author's last book, Susan Tolchin, THE ANGRY AMERICAN - How Voter Rage is Changing the Nation, WestviewPress/HarperCollins, 1996.