Money Plague Infects Politics

The following originally appeared on The Advocate.

When former Gov. Buddy Roemer suspended his role as gadfly candidate in this year’s presidential race, he did not mince words: America’s political parties are bought by special interests, including Wall Street, he said.

The Louisiana maverick now will devote his energies to a nonprofit to combat the evil, but he will find more agreement that it is a problem than consensus on what to do about it.

Roemer is hardly alone in his concerns.

“There’s something wrong when this much money has become the overpowering force in our politics,” said Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS newsman.

He decried the skyrocketing cost of campaigns in a graduation talk at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. Further, Schieffer suggested the professionalism of politics is something of an incentive for politics to get worse.

“There’s no penalty anymore for the dirty campaigning,” he told the graduates. “In the old days, people on the losing side had to go back and live in their communities. But now those consultants don’t have to live with their loss.”

The costs of negative campaign ads are funded by some very rich individuals, people who have been influential in politics since the beginnings of the Republic.

What is different is the means to bypass what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “mediating structures” in political life — the parties, whether in the national committee or state organizations, or unions or business groups. The parties or other groups had an incentive to see that political rhetoric did not go nuclear at the behest of an individual, because those groups knew that they had to cooperate to govern once the election is over.

It’s a matter of degree. Taking money from somebody is one thing. A big problem is when debate is driven by the donor agenda instead of the broader public interest.

The fat cats with intense commitment to causes can indeed “buy” — or at least sway the actions — of politicians far more than a 100,000 citizens with the opposite concern about the issue in question.

Buddy Roemer, populist, was generally ignored as a candidate. But if he can come up with a coherent agenda to repair the system, he will find many willing to sign up.

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