With the present concern for hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Social Security reform and other issues, the whole question of campaign contributions to political candidates is on the back burner. But the back burner is turned off.
Several years ago, a Russian and I were talking about "political corruption" in the former Soviet Union. His response was very simple and direct. "We have 'corruption' and you have 'political contributions'; they are all the same."
What happens in the United States is that when individuals want to be elected, they have to raise funds to pay for their election. People contribute. But as the anthropologist Mauss pointed out years ago, there are few "gifts." There are donations and giving of things, but there are always strings attached. Repayment is expected. When a 60-year-old "stage door Johnny" gives a mink coat, a million-dollar condo and dinners at exclusive restaurants to a dancer, both parties understand that these are not "gifts."
And so, in the United States, we end up with political contributions, but those who give and receive these contributions clearly understand that these are not pure and simple "gifts." Huge corporations know that by contributing to the election or re-election of a candidate, they expect special consideration when those politicians pass laws relating to their industry. Even the unions, whose mission is to stand up for the average working person, have to get in the game to survive. In a way, our elected representatives are "on the take." The Mexicans call it "mordida": the "bite."
What we end up with are corporate industries making huge profits at taxpayers' expense; state agencies being told to "consider" special interests; and individuals are given high-level jobs, not because of their qualifications, but for political reasons. What we see today are things like a person in charge of our federal emergency response, placed in that position because of political influence and whose only qualifications for the job was being involved in judging Arabian horses!
How about a whole new idea for campaign contribution reform? How about this: Political candidates could only accept contributions for election or re-election from registered voters within their electoral district, with a limit on individual or household contributions? Corporations, political parties, organizations could sponsor ads and information as an expression of freedom of speech, but could not contribute to the election of a specific political candidate.
If we don't want the United States to become a government of the rich and powerful, by the rich and powerful, for the rich and powerful, then there have to be some major changes in our whole way of dealing with political contributions. Politicians may have to go out and actually explain their votes and decisions to their constituents and not just hold pep-rallies and photo-ops.
So when everything else simmers down on the front burners, and the nation gets back to some kind of normalcy, maybe it will be time to turn on the back burner and reheat one of the basic questions about the future of the United States: Who is going to run this country? The rich and influential, the lobbyists, or the voters?
Wally Olson is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast.