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The Power of Money in America Has a Stranglehold on Democracy


By William Pfaff - International Herald Tribune

PARIS - As the United States approaches the 2000 presidential race, in which more money will be spent than ever, the fact must be faced that America has become a plutocracy. Money rules government. The transformation is probably irreversible.

The new system's invulnerability to reform is structural, the result of a series of political decisions and court rulings on the regulation and financing of political campaigns that have placed the cost of election beyond the means of all but a handful of private individuals.

Funding has to be found where the money is - which is in corporate business and special-interest lobbies. Senator John McCain of Ariz-ona, himself a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has described the result as ''nothing less than an influence-peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.''

The enormous cost of elections follows from the fact that U.S. political campaigns are almost completely conducted by means of television and radio advertising. This system is unique among the world's major democracies.

The reliance on broadcast advertising, usually short television and radio spots, has (nearly everyone concedes) greatly debased the debate, causing nearly all campaigns to be framed in intellectually vacant, if not deliberately misleading or deceitful, slogans, accusations and manipulated images.

This has turned the country's elections into a regular and immense source of income for broadcasting and advertising companies. There is a vast transfer of private and public wealth into their coffers during each political campaign. They, and the campaign machinery of consultants, pollsters, fund-raisers and publicists who live off the system, have an obvious interest in blocking any significant change.

The very scale of the money tends to preclude a successful challenge to the system. Political incumbents, who benefit most from the system, vote to maintain it even when they dislike it, because they despair of changing it. U.S. politics are filled with challenge and controversy, but electoral reform proposals invariably fail to address the core problem, which is paid television and radio campaign advertising.

Journalism is also part of the system, its role increasingly complicated by the drift toward covering politics in terms of personality and scandal, and by the recent and continuing concentration of media ownership in corporate conglomerates (such as Disney, Fox, Time Warner and General Electric) whose larger interests in influencing public policy may conflict

with the media's formal commitment to provide impartial information.

Effective legislative restriction of campaign spending has been blocked by a disastrous series of Supreme Court rulings (notably Buckley v. Valeo in 1976) holding that money spent to win public office is an exercise of constitutionally protected free speech and cannot be limited.

A ban on broadcast campaign commercials would undoubtedly be struck down under the First Amendment, even if its passage by Congress were imaginable.

The federal requirement that in exchange for the broadcasters' free use of the public airwaves they must provide ''public interest'' broadcasting, including free campaign coverage and examination of public issues, established by the Communications Act of 1934, was repealed during President Ronald Reagan's administration.

Its reinstatement has been blocked by Congress, and is almost certainly a political impossibility.

Max Frankel of The New York Times has recently recalled the suit brought by Dennis Morrisseau, an underfunded Vermont congressional candidate in the 1970s, who sued the local television station and the Federal Communications Commission, contending that the influence of television and the high cost of political commercials on the public airwaves had effectively established an unconstitutional means test for federal office. The case was thrown out.

Criticism of the system is widespread, yet there seems no great national discontent, no foment of rebellion against the rule of money in U.S. politics. Many Americans undoubtedly do not realize that other nations do not run their politics in this way, and that sensible alternatives exist to what in the United States has come to seem normal.

The unrecognized but crucial reality, however, is that even if Americans should come to recognize what has happened, and should wish to restore the democratic foundations of their republican form of government, they could change nothing. Established constitutional interpretation and legal precedent, and the power of money in the legislative process, now can prevent any fundamental change.