The more politics becomes entertainment, the more it runs on money

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are mildly embarrassed at the moment by campaign contributions from foreigners. This would seem the final campaign taboo. Everyone else's money is taken with few questions asked, and a minimum of (effective) regulation.

Mr. Clinton's publicized benefactors are Indonesian, citizens of a country whose human rights record has been generously assessed by the Clinton administration, permitting trade benefits which American law would otherwise have prevented.

Mr. Dole's contributor in the news, former chairman of his finance committee in the primaries, is a Cuban-born Spanish citizen with a U.S. resident's green card, Alfonso Fanjul, beneficiary of U.S. sugar subsidies. Mr. Fanjul has avoided U.S. taxes on his foreign investments by declaring that he intends eventually to leave the United States. (A spokesman now says he actually wants to become an American citizen.) Mr. Dole is a supporter of sugar-price subsidies.

There is little surprising or original in the Fanjul case, nor in Mr. Clinton's energetic defense not only of his Indonesian friends but of the interests of American trial lawyers and Hollywood film exporters, the two groups who have contributed most to his campaign.

The real money scandal in American politics lies elsewhere. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that the cost of the presidential campaigns this year will be nearly a billion dollars -- $800 million, three times the amount spent on the 1992 campaigns -- with another $800 million for Senate and House races.

Where does this money go? To the stockholders and executives of the broadcasting industry, and to a much smaller extent, to the press and to advertising agencies and consultants.

Every four years (every two, for the congressional campaigns) the American political system, as presently arranged, transfers hundreds of millions of wealth to American broadcasters in the form of payments for campaign advertising.

The United States is all but alone in this practice, among the democracies. Only in the United States do national elections automatically and massively enrich private and corporate interests through the transfer to them of public funds and politically interested private wealth. In other countries, broadcasters are expected to provide campaign time equitably, as a public service.

Quaint as it may seem today, money spent to solicit electoral or parliamentary favor was once considered immoral or criminal. In 1695 the British House of Commons ruled that "the offer of money, or other advantage, to any Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever to be transacted by Parliament, is a high crime and misdemeanor and tends to the subversion of the English Constitution." In the United States it is our political way of life.

Pork-barrel obviously has and does characterize politics in every democracy, in one way or another. However, the ideal once defended was that political influence and power is not to be bought and sold. The honorable legislator distinguished between the collective interests of the community he represented and the private or commercial interest attempting to suborn his vote.

That even now may remain the American ideal, but the opinion popularly held of administration and congressional conformance to that ideal may be measured in the fury and contempt expressed across the country toward politicians.

Is there an answer? There is no answer to sin, but corruption need not be written into the political system. If broadcasters and publishers were required to convey politicians' messages as a public service, or by means of federally subsidized forums, with political advertising banned, a vast amount of simple money corruption would vanish from American political life.

Why do politicians today need the money? To buy spots on television and radio, obviously. And the Supreme Court, in a deplorable decision, has held that to limit campaign spending on advertising would violate the constitutional guarantee of free speech. Fortunately, an attempt is under way to get that ruling reversed, on grounds that the public interest lies in equitable election campaigning and balanced discourse.

It will be very hard to end this pernicious system of election campaigning through paid advertising. Powerful interests profit from the present arrangement, as do politicians themselves.

There is an additional aspect to this which few have discussed. John Kenneth Galbraith lunched with a small group here in Cambridge last Friday, and offered a striking and disturbing observation on the American economy. While 75 years ago it rested on agriculture, and 50 years ago on manufacturing, today it rests on entertainment.

Agriculture and industry are connected to the fundamental reality of human life. Entertainment is escape from reality. Much about the United States today is explained when you understand that we no longer function, nationally, in response to realities, so much as to the images of reality generated by the American entertainment industry, now arguably the most influential force in American life.

Because of the takeover of politics by television, political conduct is dominated by the necessity to conform to the demands of what is, primarily, a system of commercial entertainment. This inspires a politico-psychological corruption more profound than mere money-corruption, with far more devastating implications.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/24/96

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