BillMoyers.com is proud to collaborate with EveryVoice on a series of op-eds featuring ideas from a variety of viewpoints for making our democracy one that is truly of, by and for the people. Discover more ways to fight back against our broken campaign finance system. It’s a fight we can win.
The system is rigged and broken. A small number of people have far too much political power in America. There is a clear way out, and it starts in the states.
Our current problem isn’t bribery of voters, but legal bribery of candidates. Power flows from elections, and right now most elections rely exclusively on private funding by some of the wealthiest people in world history. That means most candidates — and therefore, leaders — have no choice but to become sycophants to their interests. The corruption in our elections corrupts all of our politics.
In New York City, where I live, candidates are free to fund their campaigns privately or publicly, and that freedom from begging has transformed politics and policy. More women, more people of color, and more people from middle class families hold power. Candidates run on their ideas, and don’t keep silent when they have ideas that the billionaires don’t like. When someone in power makes a bad policy judgment, they have only themselves to blame, not their funders.
We have to replicate that. We have to leverage those places in America where we can build more models like New York City, looking strategically at the politics and local dynamics. Some parts of this country are more broken and corrupt than the federal government, but others are more dynamic and in flux, and some are only a few votes away from building the public financing model. It’s true that in the states you’ll find greater chaos — and some of the more fascinatingly knuckleheaded forms of corruption — but there’s also greater hope.
I see the path going right through my state, New York. Let me explain why: in two years, Democrats in New York State are likely to win the State Senate. We’ll have a truly Democratic Senate, a Democratic Assembly, and a (putatively) Democratic governor for the first time in decades. The future leaders in all these offices have all supported the New York City public financing model. All of them.
They may be tempted to get cold feet when they have power, so our job in the next two years is to lock down every assembly member and state senator we need for a public financing vote.
New York State can trigger a domino effect through others, much like Massachusetts led the states in secret ballot reform 130 years ago. The last time a public financing domino strategy was attempted, a decade ago, people were less anxious about corruption: now almost everyone sees how legal bribery is destroying our democracy and economy.
If New York State passes public financing for all offices, it will have hundreds of great side effects, training the national press in how public financing works, and training notoriously ambitious New York State politicians in a better system, one which they can then bring to the national level.
(Right now, half of our challenge is ignorance: few of the national press corps even understand that there’s an entirely constitutional alternative to private funding. A few years ago TIME magazine ran a story about broken politics and reform that didn’t even mention the public financing option.)
The path is there, but I won’t pretend it’s easy. Like the trailblazers who dug the path of the Erie Canal right through New York State nearly two centuries ago, it’s going to take a lot of bushwhacking, and a lot of imagination, but it can transform the system and free up the entire country.