Citizens need to change the game, not just play it

Published as an Op-Ed in the Cambridge Chronicle:

From the Wall Street meltdown and the BP oil geyser, to the epic health care battle and the continued explosion of federal government spending, the age of Obama is showing no rest from the profoundly divisive Bush years.  If anything, the grassroots fury that simmered under Bush boiled over into new networks of Tea Party activists who rail against Obama’s slogans of hope and change as just more of the same empty rhetoric.  With layoffs spreading like the Plague, and falling housing prices bleeding our futures dry, who can blame them?

“There’s nothing a good old-fashioned election can’t fix,” sang Sarah Palin to a roaring Boston Tea Party crowd in April.  Media pundits are nearly unanimous as well: Democrats will have an uphill battle at the polls this November.  Republican Scott Brown’s surprise win in Massachusetts foreshadows the upheaval to come.

But is this really an upheaval, or just another turn on the partisan merry-go-round?  Didn’t Obama himself plod the sing-same path with the most promising platform of change we’ve seen in the last half-century?  If we swing back to a Republican-controlled Congress, what would keep us from voting in more Tom Delays, Bob Neys, and countless other corrupt legislators who had not only made a job requirement out of trading special-interest policy favors for campaign cash, but also bumped up federal spending to 2.4 percent of our nation’s entire economic output — a level unheard of since the days of liberal Lyndon B. Johnson?

With both Democratic and Republican Congresses playing fast and loose with our tax money, we the people are in quite a jam — and one that a “good old-fashioned election” probably won’t do a damn thing about.

Instead of heeding Palin or the pundits to play the partisan game, we need to change the game in a sweeping, non-partisan way: we need to fight hard for the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752).

Libraries have been written on the curse of money in American politics, and how the pressure to build up monstrous campaign war chests is at the root of why our officials seem incapable of grappling with our nation’s greatest crises.  Former member of Congress Fritz Hollings (D-SC) estimates that his colleagues spend one-third of their time devoted solely to dialing for dollars (Reader’s Digest – April 2009), many from sources who bundle contributions from corporate employees interested in advancing their company’s interests (Time – July 2010).  The Fair Elections Now Act would liberate legislators from raising private money from lobbyists and their special interest clients by providing a voluntary program of public funding of political campaigns.  When a candidate raises enough small $5 contributions from individuals, then they qualify for a tax-funded grant to run their own campaign, plus matching funds for their own fund-raising efforts.  The best part is, the candidate is barred from raising more than $100 per person.  This forces candidates to raise a little from the many, rather than our current system of raising a lot from a wealthy few.

Publicly financed campaigns will finally secure our election system against special interest dollars.  Publicly-financed campaigns is how democracy should work.  Call and email Senators Brown and Kerry and ask them to support the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752).  Go to to learn more about the Fair Elections Now Act.

Adam Friedman is a member of the board of directors of MassVOTE.