America is worried about its democracy in this election year. The power of money in our politics, long a scandal, has now become a disaster. Elections are fought mainly on television, in a battle of endless and hugely expensive political ads, and candidates are trapped in spiraling arms races of fund-raising, desperately trying to raise more than their opponents. The New York Times estimates that the 1996 presidential race will cost between $600 million and $1 billion, that it now takes at least $5 million to run a successful Senate campaign—in some states as much as $30 million—and that even a seat in the House can cost $2 million.1
Much of that money is given in large amounts by corporations and individuals, many of whom contribute to both major parties. From January 1991 through June 1992, the Republican Party raised $34.9 million and the Democratic Party $13.1 million in “soft” money—money given to parties rather than to candidates and used for advertising the party’s message, for voter registration, and for other activities that are exempt from legal limits on contributions. By the same period in 1995–1996, those numbers had exploded; the Republican Party raised $83.9 million in soft money and the Democrats $70.3 million. The totals for each party are expected to reach between $120 and $150 million by November.2 The flow of “hard” money—money that is subject to legal limits—has also dramatically increased: in the 1994 general election, for example, Political Action Committees (PACs) donated $172.9 million to House and Senate campaigns. (The total was $20.4 million in 1976, just after Congress enacted a law, discussed below, that was intended to curb campaign contributions.)
The sheer volume of money raised and spent is not the only defect in contemporary American politics. The national political “debate” is now directed by advertising executives and political consultants and conducted mainly through thirty-second, “sound bite” television and radio commercials that are negative, witless, and condescending; these ads, in the view of the authors of a recent book, Going Negative, 3 drive political moderates into not voting, leaving the field to partisans and zealots. Television newscasts, from which most Americans now learn most of what they know about candidates and issues, are more and more shaped by rating wars, in which network and local news bureaus are pressed to provide entertainment rather than information or analysis, and by feature reporters, whose definition of success is to become celebrities themselves, with huge salaries and lecture fees, and public recognition that often dwarfs that of the politicians they supposedly cover.4
But money is the biggest threat to the democratic process. The time politicians must spend raising money in endless party functions and in more personal ways—not only during an election campaign but while in office, preparing for the next election—has become an increasingly large drain on their attention. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa complained in 1988, “As soon as a Senator is elected here, that Senator better start raising money…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.