Democracy at Risk

Now that our current election is flowing toward its conclusion, we should start thinking seriously about reforming the process. Without a doubt, we have the most flawed election system of all the democracies.

The No. 1 problem is money. Millions and millions of dollars are raised and spent, and it’s all this money that breeds corruption. Big shots don’t give big bucks with the expectation that they will get just good government. They’re paying in advance for favors, which is why we have a tax code of 20,000 or more pages of very fine print. You don’t need that much ink to raise revenue; you do need it to pay off contributors with special favors.

Furthermore, modern presidents spend most of their time raising money and campaigning for a second term. In short, we don’t get much work out of our presidents — or congressional representatives and senators either, for that matter. They spend an inordinate amount of time raising money, too. And since an incumbent can easily raise money, for all practical purposes there is very little democracy left in our system.

Finally, we’ve evolved into a system in which there is a perpetual campaign going on year-round, year in and year out. Every two years, all 435 members of the House have to run; during those two-year election cycles, a third of the Senate runs; and on every other two-year cycle, the president must run. Thus, political fund raising and political posturing are now continuous, which leaves virtually no time for governance. No wonder the federal government is one big cluster-blunder.

We get badly written legislation, bureaucracies piled on top of bureaucracies, lousy intelligence, moronic foreign policy, gargantuan pork projects, inflation, an expensive but lousy education system, a disastrous health-care system and loss of jobs. At the rate we’re going, we won’t survive in any kind of recognizable shape. Most of the countries of the world are not as stupid as we are rapidly becoming.

It’s not that we don’t have good and smart people who could provide us with intelligent government. The problem is, we’ve all just allowed the political system to evolve and mutate into its present mess. We needed guided, thoughtful changes.

One way to limit money is to limit the time in which candidates can spend it. There is no reason for people to campaign for two years. Campaigns should be limited to six to eight weeks prior to the election. That’s about the attention span of ordinary voters anyway. The rest of time it’s the media, the political junkies and the politicians who are, in effect, playing among themselves while the rest of the country ignores them.

Another way to limit money and its influence is to require that every dime raised be from qualified voters in the politician’s district. In other words, a Florida senator would have to raise every dime from bona fide Florida registered voters, and so on in every state. Every congressional representative would be limited to the voters in his or her own district. This alone would throw a monkey wrench into the plans of the special interests that spread money all over the country to buy votes.

Finally, we should eliminate completely all nonindividual donors. Get rid of the political action committees and ban contributions from any and all organizations. Let all the money come from individuals as individuals, and let people give as much as they want.

Steps such as these would represent genuine election reforms, but they will be tough to pass. First, the incumbents benefit from the present system, and most will be extremely reluctant to change it. Second, most of the millions of dollars raised for political campaigns is spent in the media, so you will jolly well not get any support from that industry.

These and other serious reforms will have to be forced on politicians by the people. I would suggest people need to form new organizations removed from the existing political parties. Call them George Washington Societies or Teddy Roosevelt Clubs or whatever, but let them be run solely by reform-minded people with no agenda other than preserving our democracy.

It is at risk. That’s a fact. And don’t tell me it’s a republic, not a democracy. We lost the republic at Appomattox.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.

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