Assume, as seems quite possible, that the Republican caucus on the Supreme Court decides to follow up on its selection of George W. Bush as President by overturning a century-old law and thereby legalizing unlimited corporate bribery of politicians under the guise of campaign contributions. That would seem a far-fetched idea, had not the Justices themselves raised the question in case where neither party had challenged the law.
Of course we can be confident that no critic of “judicial activism” will criticize the result, thus demonstrating once again that “judicial activism” is a purely partisan slogan left over from the days when the Warren Court tried to enforce the Constitution with respect to race relations.
But that demonstration will be cold comfort as a wave of corporate cash swamps the political system. The sums involved in even a high-stakes race are chump change by big-company standards; ExxonMobil’s quarterly profits exceed the total sums spent on campaigns in a four-year electoral cycle.
So if the Court opens the bribery spigot, we need a comparably large gusher of money on the other side. How about a voucher system?
Give every registered voter a voucher for $50 each year that can be contributed to the candidate or party committee of his choice. With about 150 million registered voters, that’s a potential total of $30 billion per four-year cycle. Not all of those vouchers would be used, of course, but there would be plenty to allow candidates who wanted to eschew corporate cash to do so. (A variant proposal would be to restrict the use of the vouchers to candidates who accepted them as the sole source of funding.)
This would transform politics in ways both bad and good. The current “money primary” system disadvantages populists of all stripes, from Ralph Nader to Lou Dobbs. I count that as a feature, not a bug, but your mileage may vary. What can’t be denied is that Sarah Palin would get a big leg up in her competition with Mitt Romney. That wouldn’t make me sad as a Democrat, but as a citizen I acknowledge that the country needs an opposition party at least somewhat in touch with consensus reality.
On the other hand, a Democratic Congressional majority that didn’t need to worry about raising money from employees of the financial-services industry or the trial lawyers would be much more free that the current majority to serve the public interest. If you think, as I do, that reversing the trend toward more income inequality ought to be a central political goal, then voucherized campaign finance is an essential prerequisite.