The highest court in the land late last year dealt a win to campaign finance reform, holding up most every major provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. This was news worth popping champagne corks over. But, it will not clean up politics in all of the ways its proponents have claimed. The reason? It only cleans up money. Election campaigns are still as free as ever to be nasty, brutish, poll-driven affairs in which competing political juggernauts scramble to strike deeper fear into the political center about the disastrous character of the opponents.
The BCRA has taken significant steps to clean up the stench of legalized bribery that permeates campaigns today. Supporters say it will open the door to healing the chasm that now exists between citizens and government, across which each side views the other with suspicion and loathing. But, that view is based on a narrow notion of who citizens are and why they are so mistrustful. Money’s part of it, but by no means the only part.
Ohio has long been a home for a groundbreaking effort to encourage political candidates to take a higher road in their campaigns. Spearheaded by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Global Ethics and led in-state by Ohio Citizen Action and a bipartisan advisory council, since 1998 the Project on Campaign Conduct has worked directly with Congressional candidates to negotiate mutual codes of conduct and get them to agree to abide by them. Toledo was also at the forefront of this effort — ever since the Lucas County Clean Campaign Committee formed while the mayoral race between Ray Kest and Jack Ford was at its peak of nastiness. What the Project learned over three election cycles of work is that, while money plays a major part in the problem, citizens are far more turned off by the way campaigns are conducted, not how they are funded.
Repeated polling throughout the state and across the nation confirms this. In the most recent national Civic Values Survey, a bipartisan poll designed to probe the public’s attitudes toward how campaigns are waged, by far the greatest concern that citizens had was about candidates’ honesty and integrity. Twenty six percent said this was their chief concern, with nineteen percent most concerned about money issues. Another eight percent were concerned about backstabbing, negative election campaigns.
That’s across the nation. In Ohio, there is similar concern, and it’s growing. Over a two year period (from 1998 to 2000), the percentage of Ohioans who said that negative, attack-oriented campaigns are damaging democracy went from thirty seven percent to fifty percent.
What is needed is the same sort of diligence among America’s civic leaders that finally pushed BCRA onto the public agenda and into law. America’s civic leaders need to stand up and demand a better quality of campaign. They need to begin to encourage citizens to ask: “How is my candidate running?” in addition to “What are my candidate’s stands on issues?” Citizens are ready for this true civic leadership, but remain convinced that their own small voices cannot make a difference in the face of the way campaigns are conducted today. Seventy one percent of Americans say that elected officials have “a different set of values from me.” Civic leaders can light the way for ordinary American citizens to truly take back politics.
Codes of conduct are a place to start. But there are other things that can be done, too. Civic groups holding candidate forums can ask different questions, ones that focus on honesty, respect for opponents and citizens, and fairness. Organizations that endorse candidates can withhold endorsements when candidates go too strongly negative.
It is not a politics of politeness that people crave. People understand that there must be argument in politics, because the issues are so important. But there is argument, and there is name calling. It is name calling that has so turned off Americans and Ohioans, not political argument.
When all is said and done, I am certain BCRA will have been a significant step forward. But it will not erase all of the problems with politics today, and it will not produce a suddenly-engaged electorate. America’s civic leaders — the ones who set the conditions for BCRA’s passage through phone-calls, organizing, and tireless work — have a new task before them. Let us hope they bring the same energy to this one for, if they do, we will all benefit and we may yet develop a democracy in which we can take deserved pride.