A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 18, 2009
By Bill Kraus
Always something to be wary about. The charge is that I, as a reformer, think it’s still 1978. The fact is that a lot of the trouble that I see with politics and political campaigning is that I know it isn’t 1978.
In 1978 the the two statewide papers and regional counterparts were politically powerful. Reporters validated candidacies. Editors accepted those validations by what they put in the papers and where they put the coverage of campaigns and candidates. Editorial endorsements from the two statewide papers (one of which has been merged out of existence, the other of which has become a regional) were always important and often crucial to political success.
This absence is irreversible as, alas, is the decline of local papers everywhere.
We thought the parties were still important in 1978 until we discovered that the GOP which used to almost fully fund all statewide races and filled the coffers of legislative races as well had a bank account of $5,000. The important money flow had shifted to candidates or to independent expenditures.
This is reformable only in theory. The fact that the beneficiaries of the present system would have to do the reforming makes revival of parties to their pre-Watergate powers somewhere between unlikely and impossible.
The special interests have always been with us, but the powerful ones in 1978 were labor and business, whose agendas were more broad than specific. What they got for their money and votes was a friendly bias not a vote on a specific issue or idea. The special interests have become more numerous, more zealous and more focused. Their issues are things like abortion, gay marriage, guns. They run litmus tests. They want promises on votes on their issues.
This genie seems to be out of the bottle and its continued existence as a major force in political campaigns is assured by a Supreme Court that rightly worships the 1st amendment and less rightly is blind to collateral damage.
Talk radio, which is show business but poses as faux journalism, was not as widespread or as virulent in 1978 and hadn’t gotten to the point where it terrified increasingly pusillanimous candidates.
The only hope of change here is that those practitioners of the trade who have already gone too far will go even farther and their audiences will shrink and their advertisers will disappear.
And the most important change of all is that in 1978 the parties were managed by citizen politicians who provided from their ranks other citizen politicians to run the campaigns themselves. They hired advertising agencies, pollsters, organizers, professional advisers.
They are all gone. The citizens write checks and lend their names to letterheads. Campaign management is a business which has become very profitable as these professional campaign managers have shifted the emphasis to money and media, polling and focus groups, to marketing.
Politics by money and mercenary will persist until and unless the citizen pols decide the game is worth the candle and put in the time and effort to take over again. This will happen only if we decide to starve the beast. The motivations of the missing citizens were no better than mixed, but it can be said that they were not in it for the money, which the mercenaries are by definition.
So 1978 was not perfect. And 2009 is a train wreck.
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