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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 11.12.09




Soft Despotism

Remembering campaign finance reform in a non-election year 

by Sam Porter

This is not an election year, to the relief of many. But remember, the way our campaigns are financed creates and sustains the rule of the many by the few — oligarchy. 

Already in the 1830s, in a chapter of his Democracy in America, “How an Aristocracy May be Created by Industry,” Alexis de Tocqueville talks about a “manufacturing aristocracy which we see rising before our eyes.”

Although he moderates his criticism when he characterizes this “manufacturing  aristocracy” as “one of the most restrained and least dangerous,” he stresses that “the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in that direction. For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered.”

Tocqueville warns against such “soft despotism” and sees “individualism” — a word Tocqueville coined — as “the Achilles’ heel of the American experiment,” in the words of one our ablest contemporary social observers, Robert Bellah. For if everyone forms the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation — “shut up in the solitude of his [or her] own heart” — and withdraws into their small circle of family and friends leaving the greater society to look after itself, tyrants or oligarchies will rush in to fill the vacuum. 

Tocqueville’s insight into the national psychology that creates the conditions for despotism is extraordinary. But in the 1830s, he had no idea of the key mechanism that sustains this oligarchy: the way political campaigns are financed.

The outcome of so many issues — local, national and international — hinge on this system. Examples include health care, global warming and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

My late father, a longtime local attorney activist and former U.S. Congressman Charles O. “Charlie” Porter (Democrat, 1957-61), considered campaign finance reform essential to our democracy and outlined it as follows:

Campaigns for high political office must be publicly financed conditioned on not using any personal or donated funds, appearing side by side and regularly debating with your opponent(s) at venues throughout the district, state or nation as well as on TV and radio.

No 30- or 60-second negative spots or, more to the point, no TV advertising, which creates most of the pressure on politicians to raise money, the U.S. Supreme Court’s equating free speech with money notwithstanding. And the issues should be debated under the supervision of a person with Walter Cronkite-like trustworthiness.

TV networks and stations don’t own the airwaves. Free TV time for candidates is essential, but improving political campaigns also involves mandatory spots of at least five minutes and, most important, side-by-side presentations and debates by the candidates.

Candidates should be given money for direct mail as well as free TV and radio time. When they sign up to run for the nomination, they should agree to appear side by side on television, radio and in public meetings. Adversarial campaigns — mediated by civility — under these circumstances will promote discussion of substantial issues, instead of fear-inspiring slogans and character assassination.

As citizens, we must become aroused by the imminent lethal danger to our democracy posed by reigning corporate oligarchy — and the system of campaign financing that sustains it. 

My dad said a colleague of his in Congress once told him that real campaign finance reform for a member of Congress is like trying to do heart surgery on yourself. “So be it!” my dad retorted. 

The stakes — health care, global warming, etc. — are among the highest our democratic experiment has faced, requiring a renewal among citizens of the revolutionary spirit of the founding of our democratic republic and Lincoln-like gravitas. 

Sam Porter is a courtesy research associate in the Department of Sociology at the UO.