Bernie Sanders sent me a letter over the weekend. He's a U.S. Senator from Vermont but wants me, a New Yorker, and others across the country to donate to his campaign fund so he can "bring our message to middle-class and working-class voters in Vermont and throughout the country." Sanders is using the Koch Bros. to scare or enrage people into giving him money. He even has a "Taking on the Koch Brothers" logo on the envelope and on the coupon you fill out if you're going to donate. A rare avowed independent in the Senate, although he caucuses with the Democrats, Sanders claims that the Kochs are also independents -- leaders of a "Billionaire Party" that has become "the major political force in the country." This party wants "to repeal or eviscerate every major piece of legislation passed in the last 80 years [i.e. since the New Deal] which protects the interests of working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor." That's only its short-term goal. "Long term, their economic goal is to create a right-wing extremist 'free' economy in which working people have virtually no rights or protections" and "an electoral system in which the super-rich buy elections while, at the same time, fewer low-income and working people are able to vote." Sanders, usually described as a sort of "democratic socialist," hopes to rally Americans "around a progressive agenda which represents the needs of the vast majority of our people." He needs my help, he claims, to "build a strong grass-roots movement." I can do this by giving him money.
Why does that sound wrong to me? I suppose we must acknowledge that someone like Sanders can't enact the major reforms he lists in his letter -- including a campaign-finance reform package including a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and a system of public financing for elections -- until he wins more elections. He can't change the rules until he first plays by the rules and wins. But if he plays by the rules and wins -- if he can win elections despite the money raised by the Kochs and their Kronies, and with the help of other people's money -- where exactly is the need for reform? That question can be answered, but Sanders doesn't really give the answer. If there was at least an expression of regret at having to ask people for money himself, he might get closer to the answer. But if the case against unlimited campaign donations is that under such a system the Kochs and the people they prefer are bound to win, then any success Sanders has refutes his own case. Would-be populists like Sanders act as if people like the Kochs invented this system, when in fact they're only exploiting it. The real problem that has created this opportunity for the Kochs and their ilk, and for organizations like "Friends of Bernie Sanders" as well, is that television has succeeded to an unprecedented degree at transforming political speech into a commodity. TV commercial time is a seller's market, and that's what gives the deeper pockets their advantage. That's where reform needs to happen. Costs must be controlled and, yes, "speech" must be "rationed" to level the marketplace of ideas. Controlling costs will seem more fair to more people than any public financing idea, which will inevitably be portrayed as compelling taxpayers to subsidize speech they disagree with. The media, "liberal" and "conservative" alike, will protest, but it's not the media but the state that decides how elections are conducted. If the media take a loss, that'll just be too bad; profits aren't guaranteed by the First Amendment. Of course, someone will still need to win elections to make any of this agenda happen. Does that put all aspiring reformers in the same boat as Sanders? Not necessarily, so long as they tell the whole story about why campaign financing is a problem. It would definitely help, too, if they could set a better example than Sanders of declaring independence from money right from the start.