For the past few months, New Yorkers have had the privilege of watching gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout meet with civic groups around the state, dance in parades, give brilliant interviews, and write insightful op-eds. But the reason that she should triumph in the Democratic primary on September 9 is that she takes up the best democratic traditions in American history.
In her new book, Corruption in America, Teachout presents her political vision. The Founders were republicans, that is, they cared about the public good (res publica) that transcended personal interest. The primary threat to republics is corruption, when politicians serve private interests at the public's expense. The Founders designed the Constitution and nourished a political culture to prevent corruption. Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United have weakened the institutional protections, but Americans can still renew the anticorruption principle, demanding that politicians serve the common good rather than their own, or their corporate sponsor's, interests.
Teachout's plan is to make New York a state that works for everyone, not just the rich and connected.
Teachout favors publicly funded elections, as did Teddy Roosevelt, as do most Americans. The problem with expensive campaigns is that politicians are often beholden to the individuals and corporations that fund them. Take Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose staff told the Moreland Commision to withdraw its subpoena of the Real Estate Board of New York, a group that has contributed to Cuomo's $35 million campaign war chest. Would Cuomo prioritize this group or the state when their interests conflict, say, when deciding whether to advocate tax breaks for new housing? Publicly funded elections serve as a prophylactic against private interests interfering with a politician's civic responsibilities.
A second example is fracking. Fracking involves blasting water into deep holes in the ground so that natural gas rises to the surface to be collected. In the short term, corporations and individuals make money from fracking, but there is environmental damage along the way, including contaminated water going into wells and reservoirs. Cuomo, to his credit, has approved a study to determine the safety of fracking, but Teachout calls for banning fracking, clear and simple. Clean water is a public good that may not be polluted for the sake of a small group of people.
A third example is monopolies. Teachout opposes the $45 billion proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. What difference does it make if two cable giants unite? The issue is that monopolies may decide policies that benefit themselves and not the public--for instance, by refusing to provide Internet service to impoverished areas. "We need public oversight over what is today a vital public good." Public oversight does not mean government control, it just means stopping a faction from deciding public questions for its own enrichment.
A fourth example, and perhaps the most controversial, is the Common Core education standards. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the writing of the standards, the Obama administration incentivized states to adopt them through the Race to the Top program, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan accuses Common Core opponents of belonging to the right-wing fringe. True to her principles, Teachout argues that "the best public education is made democratically, in the local community: when parents, teachers, and administrators work together to build and refine the education models and standards right for our children."
Will Teachout prevail in Tuesday's election? It will be hard, given that Cuomo commercials flood the airwaves. But who should win? That's easy, one of the bravest people to speak out against the undue influence of money in contemporary politics: Zephyr Teachout.