3d Parties Are Answer to Special Interests

Quad-City Times, "Opinion," September 26, 2000, p. A6

“A cancer on the presidency,” was John Dean’s characterization of Watergate.

Today the cancer eating at the heart of democracy is special interest money.

Candid candidates agree. Major contributors expect something in return – and get it.

Examine the beneficiaries of our government’s corporate welfare programs. You’ll discover the formula. A dollar in political contributions can earn 1000 times that “investment.” A million-dollars in “soft money” produces billions in defense contracts, subsidies, price supports, licenses, tax breaks, use of public lands or antitrust exemptions.

New York’s William “Boss” Tweed used to say, “I don’t care who does the electing as long as I get to do the nominating.” Today’s corporate political bosses agree. Special interests give generously to both parties. They don’t care which of their nominees wins.

The bulk of George W. Bush’s $100 million in contributions has been collected by his “Pioneers” at $100,000 each. What’s he going to do when they come to collect? Spit in their eye?

Thirty years ago John Gardner, former secretary of the U.S. Health, Education and Welfare department, told me about an organization he proposed called Common Cause. Years later I served on its national board. Its major goal: campaign finance reform. We still don’t have it.

It turns out legislation can be passed only by incumbents. And incumbents like the present system just fine.

Does Al Gore have some secret plan for passing legislation without the participation of Congress? If not, his grand promise to send campaign finance reform legislation to the Hill is just hollow rhetoric.

No, the fact is that neither of the two major parties can change this system.

A Democratic Party spokesperson put it very candidly to a TV reporter during the convention. Asked about the corporate entertainment and massive funding, he replied, “Shut up and listen. We have to win.”

[Omitted by editors from published version: "That’s what politics is about. Winning. Whatever it takes. Negative ads? Multi-million-dollar special interest contributions? Stretching the truth? We have to win."]

Ironically, therein may lie the hope for campaign finance reform.

Most of the major innovations in our nation’s law and policy have come from third parties. Major parties back change only when it’s necessary to win.

Read the history of the Greenback-Labor Party, Grange, Farmers’ Alliances, People’s Party, Progressives, Populists and Socialists.

After the Civil War the Democratic Party came to be controlled by business and the wealthy. It did little to help poor farmers. Disenchanted Democrats organized a People’s Party. It advocated regulation of banks and railroads, a progressive income tax, eight-hour workday, cooperatives, bigger education budgets, direct popular election of U.S. senators and the popular referendum.

Iowa’s James B. Weaver was the party’s 1892 nominee for president.

In 1911 the Wisconsin branch created a workers’ compensation program, workplace safety legislation, maximum hours for women and children, a state income tax, and state life insurance fund.

By 1912 many Republicans were disgusted with big business control of their party. Those Republican dissidents formed the Progressive Party. It advocated abolition of child labor, women’s vote, primary elections, national social insurance, and restrictions on injunctions in labor disputes. In 1924 it advocated the right to collective bargaining.

Wisconsin’s efforts with public works and unemployment compensation in 1931 became a model for much of President Roosevelt’s legislation – as were many of the Socialist Party’s proposals. Which brings us to today’s two-headed corporate party and campaign finance reform.

Today’s disgusted Democrats and Republicans are supporting the Green Party and its presidential candidate, Ralph Nader. No one’s more independent of special interest money.

[Omitted by editors from published version: "Some skittish Democrats are frightened their vote for Nader will put Bush in the White House. They should consider columnist Molly Ivins’ strategy.

Check out Work for Ralph Nader until election eve."]

Send the two major parties a message about special interest money. Do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

Then, before voting, ask three questions:

Unless you answer “yes” to all three, a vote for Gore or Bush is wasted. They’re going to win (or lose) anyway.

If it’s a free vote don’t throw it away. Support Iowa’s proud third party tradition. Make a difference for America. Vote for Nader.

(Nicholas Johnson was a member of the Federal Communications Commission from 1966 to 1973 and now teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law. He lives in Iowa City.)

[Omitted by editors from published version: " Nicholas Johnson, who has held three presidential appointments in Democratic administrations and run for Congress as a Democrat, now wants to help his party recapture its soul.,"]