Do We Still Have the Luxury
for Publicly-Financed Elections?
by Paul Krugman
New York Times, June 27,
In principle, Mexico's 1917 Constitution
established a democratic political system. In practice, until
very recently Mexico was a one-party state. While the ruling party
employed intimidation and electoral fraud when necessary, mainly
it kept control through patronage, cronyism and corruption. All
powerful interest groups, including the media, were effectively
part of the party's political machine.
Such systems aren't unknown here -- think
of Richard J. Daley's Chicago. But can it happen to the United
States as a whole? A forthcoming article in The Washington Monthly
shows that the foundations for one-party rule are being laid right
In ''Welcome to the Machine,'' Nicholas
Confessore draws together stories usually reported in isolation
-- from the drive to privatize Medicare, to the pro-tax-cut fliers
General Motors and Verizon recently included with the dividend
checks mailed to shareholders, to the pro-war rallies organized
by Clear Channel radio stations. As he points out, these are symptoms
of the emergence of an unprecedented national political machine,
one that is well on track to establishing one-party rule in America.
Mr. Confessore starts by describing the
weekly meetings in which Senator Rick Santorum vets the hiring
decisions of major lobbyists. These meetings are the culmination
of Grover Norquist's ''K Street Project,'' which places Republican
activists in high-level corporate and industry lobbyist jobs --
and excludes Democrats. According to yesterday's Washington Post,
a Republican National Committee official recently boasted that
''33 of 36 top-level Washington positions he is monitoring went
Of course, interest groups want to curry
favor with the party that controls Congress and the White House;
but as The Washington Post explains, Mr. Santorum's colleagues
have also used ''intimidation and private threats'' to bully lobbyists
who try to maintain good relations with both parties. ''If you
want to play in our revolution,'' Tom DeLay, the House majority
leader, once declared, ''you have to live by our rules.''
Lobbying jobs are a major source of patronage
-- a reward for the loyal. More important, however, many lobbyists
now owe their primary loyalty to the party, rather than to the
industries they represent. So corporate cash, once split more
or less evenly between the parties, increasingly flows in only
And corporations themselves are also increasingly
part of the party machine. They are rewarded with policies that
increase their profits: deregulation, privatization of government
services, elimination of environmental rules. In return, like
G.M. and Verizon, they use their influence to support the ruling
As a result, campaign finance is only
the tip of the iceberg. Next year, George W. Bush will spend two
or three times as much money as his opponent; but he will also
benefit hugely from the indirect support that corporate interests
-- very much including media companies -- will provide for his
Naturally, Republican politicians deny
the existence of their burgeoning machine. ''It never ceases to
amaze me that people are so cynical they want to tie money to
issues, money to bills, money to amendments,'' says Mr. DeLay.
And Ari Fleischer says that ''I think that the amount of money
that candidates raise in our democracy is a reflection of the
amount of support they have around the country.'' Enough said.
Mr. Confessore suggests that we may be
heading for a replay of the McKinley era, in which the nation
was governed by and for big business. I think he's actually understating
his case: like Mr. DeLay, Republican leaders often talk of ''revolution,''
and we should take them at their word.
Why isn't the ongoing transformation of
U.S. politics -- which may well put an end to serious two-party
competition -- getting more attention? Most pundits, to the extent
they acknowledge that anything is happening, downplay its importance.
For example, last year an article in Business Week titled ''The
GOP's Wacky War on Dem Lobbyists'' dismissed the K Street Project
as ''silly -- and downright futile.'' In fact, the project is
well on the way to achieving its goals.
Whatever the reason, there's a strange
disconnect between most political commentary and the reality of
the 2004 election. As in 2000, pundits focus mainly on images
-- John Kerry's furrowed brow, Mr. Bush in a flight suit -- or
on supposed personality traits. But it's the nexus of money and
patronage that may well make the election a foregone conclusion.
Reforming the Electoral Process