Monday, October 10, 2005

Mike Bloomberg: Campaign Finance Reformer?

The news that Mike Bloomberg is on the verge of setting a new spending record, well documented in Saturday’s NY Times, raises a couple of interesting points on the whole issue of campaign finance reform. In some ways the entire foundation of this particular reform effort can be called into question in light of the mayor's millions.

The issue here is the assumption that money in politics, no, check that, "special interest" money in politics, corrupts the entire enterprise and prevents the will of the people from being properly expressed. The critique that informs this world view was expressed eloquently many years ago by Theodore Lowi in his book, "The End of Liberalism."

Lowi's take was that "interest group liberalism," the interplay really of various special interests in the political process prevented the Public Good from being expressed in politics. In some ways this point of Lowi's was a reformulation of Plato's: the idea that a philosophical "Good" existed and could be divined by philosophical examination. In this view, real politics, the rough and tumble of the often seamy world of interests fighting it out, was less pristine and, as a result corrupted the political process.

The corollary to this belief, one that has a more modern perspective, is that there is a dichotomy between the special interests and the will of the people. When these special interests, often never well-defined, hold sway the people's voice is necessarily silenced.

What's missing in this analysis, however, is any conception of how the public will is determined. If the special interests are somehow silenced, how will the voice of the people be expressed? The answer is that the entire premise of the campaign finance effort is faulty. The will of the people is expressed in the interplay of interests. There is no abstract Good that only can be envisioned by a philosopher king. To paraphrase a popular slogan: "One man's special interest is another man's public interest."

Which brings us to Mike's millions. If one is concerned that money can corrupt the political process it should make no difference if that money derives from a special interest source or whether it comes from a single individual who has amassed a billion dollar fortune. In either case, if you follow the reform premise, the putative will of the people is drowned out.

It may be, however, that there are some even greater risks if the money comes from a single source. The need to rely on special interests does mean that you are beholden at least to someone. These interests don't usually represent any monolithic group but derive from a wider interplay of competing groups.

So when the mayor and his minions talk about being above these tawdry interests we should be very careful in expressing any degree of satisfaction with this state of affairs. In reality, the mayor is beholden to absolutely nobody but, even worse, has enough money to shape and mold public opinion in such a way that he can go a long way toward defining what, practically, the so-called public interest is.

That is why the comments of the mayor's media lackey, Bill Cunningham are so ironically prescient. When confronted with the question of the fairness of the mayoral splurge and its potential impact on campaign reform, Cunningham remarked; "Maybe that's the trade-off...Maybe sometimes a guy has to spend his own money to clean up the system."

Defining the Public Interest

Of course the irony of Cunningham's remarks is the way they hoist the campaign reformers on their own petard. The reformers, since they have only focused on the electoral process, have totally ignored the larger question of just how the control of the special interest bogeyman during an election cycle leads to a more "responsive" and democratic political system.

Seen in the context of this larger question the Cunningham remark can be viewed more in line with the old Vietnam observation of destroying the village in order to save it. The phenomenon of someone spending upwards of $100 million in a campaign, precisely because the money serves to define the political reality, poses an even graver threat to democratic politics than a campaign privately funded with "special interest" money.

It is a loophole that exposes the fallacy of campaign reform in two important ways: (1) It doesn't prevent the mega-rich from making a mockery of the process and; (2) It exposes the complete miscalculation of what the public interest is, and how it is achieved. Furthermore, when the wealthy get to buy the pot it is the billionaire alone who, through legerdemain, gets to determine just where the public good lies.

As a result, at least in NYC's case, we are left with the tragic-comedy of Mike Bloomberg as the philosopher king. Listen the mayor's tone of regal authority:
When we make decisions we make decisions not based on who has contributed but what is right for the city
But on what basis does he make the judgment? On a lifetime of never having even thought about municipal public policy? On his own class perspective? On being able to avoid being distracted by the cacophony of competing interests? These questions should be the starting point for a more meaningful discussion of the whole issue of campaign finance reform.