In the wake of the Democrats' embarrassing performance in the Nov. 5 midterm election, Congressmember Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said the other day that the Democratic Party must reestablish itself as the party that takes care of the public interest. It's certainly an admirable goal, but to this point it has been an impossible one.
Why? Because of the influence of big money in politics.
In the seven years leading up to this year's historic ban on soft money (large amounts of money donated by corporations, unions and rich people to the two major parties and then laundered into federal campaigns), nearly $1 billion flowed into the political process. The top 10 donating industries alone-securities and investments ($90 million), labor unions ($66.3 million), telecommunications ($57.5 million), real estate ($54.9 million), lawyers and lobbyists ($48.2 million), insurance ($45.1 million), computers and electronics ($40.1 million), entertainment and media ($40.1 million), pharmaceuticals and medical supplies ($38.4 million) and oil and gas ($37 million)-gave more than a half-billion dollars to the Republicans and Democrats from 1995 to 2001.
While the Republicans are generally considered the typical beneficiaries of corporate money, the Democrats pocketed about $435 million during that seven-year period. And although $114 million came from unions and lawyers, roughly $321 million came from other corporate interests.
One could argue that the influence of corporate money on the Democrats was a factor in their unwillingness to battle the President's tax cuts for the rich and their inability to capitalize on this year's corporate accounting scandals during the campaign. If the Democrats had truly been the public-interest party, they could easily have painted the Republicans as the darlings of billionaire corporate special interests.
But thanks to the lopsided way our electoral system was set up, the Democrats have to play the huge-money fundraising game to be competitive with the Republicans, who, thanks to their inherent laissez-faire and trickle-down economic attitudes, are naturals for donations from the wealthiest segments of society. Industries with a lot of money at stake understand this. That's why companies from the telecommunications, insurance, gambling, real estate, computers, agribusiness, health care and financial industries pump nearly as much money into Democratic coffers as Republican coffers. The result is-always-favorable legislation.
Need an example? Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was largely responsible for a law that paved the way for a frenzy of big-money mergers of cable, radio, TV, print media, film and Internet companies. Such legislation hinders competition, drives up prices and puts more and more money into fewer and fewer hands.
Now the soft-money ban takes effect. Time will tell whether it's enforced and the political process is purified, or whether large amounts of money find loopholes in the new law.
For whatever reason, the Democrats have lost their way. Beholden to special interests, they have tried to out-Republican Republicans, which is an idiotic strategy. Left with that choice, people might as well vote for the real Republicans.
A new strategy worth trying would be to become an actual opposition party. Oppose Bush's policies that widen the gap between the rich and the poor. Get in the way of his attempts on behalf of the oil and timber industry to ruin the natural environment. Shine light on deregulation efforts that benefit large shareholders and CEOs while screwing working people. Stop aiding and abetting Bush's reckless drive to war. And how about some bold health insurance reform?
The Democrats should follow the lead of Paul Wellstone, whose sudden, pre-election death was like a bad omen. Call him what you will-liberal, progressive, populist-Wellstone was proud of his political stripes, and he voted his conscience. The Democrats suffered on Nov. 5 because they have lost their collective conscience.
Nancy Pelosi has shown guts by opposing war on Iraq, opposing trade with China because of its human-rights record and opposing fast-track trade authority. She has an excellent record on the environment and civil rights. In the interest of real democracy, we hope Pelosi can reshape the Democratic Party in such a way that it really does watch out for the public interest.