Conservatism and Campaign Finance Reform

The proposition that money has had a corrosive effect on the American political system is one that hardly needs to be defended. However, the notion that campaign finance reform could–and should, I think–be a “conservative” issue is probably a little more debatable.

The thing is, as the Constitution stands today, there’s really not much that can be done about the influence of money in politics. A consistent constitutional conservative should honestly acknowledge that fact. But we must remember that, however much we may love our nation’s fundamental law, it’s not holy writ; the British statesman William Gladstone may very well be correct when he called the Constitution “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man,” but it’s a wholly human document, nonetheless. Of course, the Framers themselves realized this, which is precisely why they incorporated a provision for amending the document in Article V.

I think maybe a little guiding wisdom from none other than Edmund Burke–widely considered to be the intellectual father of conservatism–is in order here. He once wrote that “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.” If we are convinced that something needs to be done about money in politics, we don’t have to throw out the whole Constitution, lock, stock, and barrel; we don’t have to repeal the First Amendment right to free speech. But maybe a constitutional amendment expressly limiting the power of special interest groups, corporations, and labor unions to “buy off” politicians would be an “improvement” in the Burkean sense. I happen to think so, anyway.

(Quick digression, if you’ll indulge me: It is my earnest hope that, failing a constitutional amendment, the social networking revolution will counterbalance the influence of money in politics. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.)

It’s really a shame that so many associate advocacy of campaign finance reform with the left, because in truth it’s got a conservative pedigree. Heck, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater wrote this in The Conscience of a Conservative:

In order to achieve the widest possible distribution of political power, financial contributions to political campaigns should be made by individuals alone. I see no reason for labor unions–or corporations–to participate in politics. Both were created for economic purposes and their activities should be restricted accordingly. [Italics in original.]

This is Mr. Conservative talking, mind you, so this sentiment isn’t exactly alien to American conservatism.

One last thing, before I wrap this up: I think we on the Right have a real opportunity to lead here, and in so doing to shatter many of the misconceptions about conservatism common to younger voters (i.e., that we’re just shills for those in the upper strata of society). The fact is, a great many people feel that they’re not being heard, that their interests are being passed over to promote the interests of Big Business and Big Labor. Really, is there any way to deny that that’s true, at least to an extent? But here’s a chance for conservatives to demonstrate clearly that we stand for what people really care about. Isn’t that what we always say we’re trying to do, anyway?

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