03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A New Social Movement

The struggle for campaign finance reform has not yet generated a mass social movement. As the researchers at the Center for Responsive Politics noted: "The historic social movements that have been responsible for the evolution of American democracy focused primarily on electoral participation - especially voting rights broadly defined - and scarcely at all on electoral finance." Citing the victories secured by women and African Americans with regard to the right to vote, "these struggles can be seen as efforts to nullify or at least counterbalance the undemocratic influence of the monied elites on the political process." Nevertheless, they write, neither "directly challenged the primary institution by which the monied elites exercised political control - privately financed election campaigns." (1)

Rather than addressing the way the electoral system is financed, liberals, progressives, and radicals have typically focused on discrimination, championing equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women, and marginalized groups such as gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. They have also actively supported limitations on greenhouse gas emissions, and strongly opposed United States military interventions overseas. In short, they have concentrated on the outcome of politics, but not on the political process. It is true that scandals such as Watergate and the unregulated use of "soft money" did force campaign finance reform onto the legislative agenda. But FECA's passage in 1974 and BCRA's in 2002 were both driven by revelations of corruption, not by a movement seeking to reconstruct the political system to achieve greater participant equality.

Progressive activists have secured major victories in breaking down barriers of prejudice and discrimination. Their successes, as intellectual historian Paul Lyons notes, made "our society more inclusive, more fair, [and] more just...." Those achievements were the result of both the diligence and perseverance of the activists and the remarkable ability that the people of this country, taken as a whole, have displayed in confronting and moving beyond the stereotypes with which they were raised. The changes achieved, in short, are not only real but also serve to encourage future activism.

However, even as barriers to full participation in the life of society were breaking down, the political system itself was becoming more oligarchic. Between 1974 and 2006, Congressional campaign expenditures increased more than four-fold. All of this money was raised from private sources. Even as the society became socially more liberal, the political process became increasingly dependent upon and shaped by the free-market conservatism of a relatively small number of wealthy political donors.

Social progress thus has occurred at the same time that there has been an increase in political dysfunction. Wealthy special interests, strategically placed as campaign donors, have obstructed advances on the critical issue of global climate change, set in motion a process of financial deregulation that resulted in the present economic calamity, and most recently have made it increasingly unlikely that the right to affordable health care will be extended to all Americans. The political process, as currently paid for, is unable to resolve important issues successfully and indeed itself contributes to the creation of problems.

Nevertheless the belief remains widespread that progressive objectives can be secured without a systemic change in campaign financing. The rapturous welcome accorded to Barack Obama's candidacy, despite the fact that his campaign was privately funded and largely dependent upon big donors in its critical early efforts, reflects the continued belief that the power of money can be overcome. The anticipation was that a progressive President would be able to tame money. Dismissed was the possibility that big money would tame the progressive President.

If, as appears increasingly likely, Obama's incumbency will end with his agenda thwarted, liberals and progressives may react by reconsidering their priorities. Frustrated, they will do so only after having learned that a political system that accords disproportionate power to private wealth is also one that consistently produces perverse legislative outcomes. With this the case, they may begin to build a broad social movement with the objective of establishing a publicly financed campaign funding system for candidates. Success in this would clearly represent an important political counterpart to the social liberalism that has successfully been on the march in recent decades.

(1) Center for Responsive Politics, "A Brief History of Money in Politics: Campaign Finance and Campaign Finance Reform in the United States," This document no longer is available at the Center's website, but it has been reproduced in part at the Hoover Institution.