Thomas Jefferson would consider modern elections in the United States to be a complete sham. No longer are political campaigns conducted by newspaper editorials and printed pamphlets filled with detailed discussions of public policy, but rather by massive waves of thirty-second television or radio spots, financed by corporations that have their own selfish interests at heart. When the incumbency rate of members of Congress is usually as high as 90%, even while public approval of Congress is very low, it's obvious that something is very wrong.
Money rather than ideas has emerged as the deciding factor in who wins a congressional election. Corporate interests of all sorts have established large-scale operations designed to funnel massive amounts of campaign money to political candidates. Because political candidates depend on this money to finance their electoral campaigns, these corporations utterly dwarf ordinary citizens in the influence they have on the actions of office-holders. If an office-holder toes the line, the corporations will keep the money flowing; if not, the money stops. If that's not bribery, I don't know what is.
An incumbent member of Congress, by doing favors for powerful corporations, is able to count on massive financial resources for their reelection campaigns. Consequently, it is always difficult if not impossible for ordinary citizens to challenge sitting members of Congress (or, for that matter, state and local office-holders), because there is simply no way for them to raise the necessary amounts of money to be competitive. In the 2008 elections, 55 incumbent members of the House of Representatives lacked a challenger, something Jefferson would have considered an utter disgrace.
There is an idea that may not, by itself, solve this problem, but which at least has the potential to make it much better: public financing of elections. If qualified candidates have access to public funds with which to launch a respectable political campaign, the power of incumbency can be greatly reduced, and the corrupt practices that have bedeviled politics in recent decades would be reduced along with it.
We can examine whether or not such a system would work by looking at the successes and failures of it on the state level. 14 states now provide some form of public financing to certain types of candidates, but let us take the state of Maine as a case-in-point for how public financing can make electoral politics more Jeffersonian.
In 1996, the Pine Tree State passed the Maine Clean Elections Act, which provided for public funds for candidates running for Governor, the State Senate, or the State House. In order to quality, candidates had to demonstrate a reasonable level of public support by raising a certain amount of money in $5 donations. Once they crossed the threshold, they qualified for public funds and could no longer accept private donations.
The program has been a great success, with more than four out of five candidates for the Maine State Legislature using the program. This has largely eliminated the power of corporations to unduly influence the legislation passed in Maine, giving control of the legislative process back to the people where it belongs. In the 2006 gubernatorial election, the Democratic and Republican candidates were forced to compete with competitively-financed independent candidates, one of whom gained over 20% of the vote, while the candidate of the Green Party earned nearly 10% of the vote. This vibrant competition for office was exactly what Jefferson would have wanted to see.
Imagine taking the example of Maine and applying it on a national scale for elections to Congress. No longer would the corporate-controlled candidates have the field all to themselves every two years, facing either minimal opposition from underfunded candidates or no opposition at all. The rotation in office, so important to the survival of a vibrant democracy, would be greatly increased, an even incumbent Congressmen would be forced to act more responsibly if faced with genuine opposition every election cycle.
By itself, public financing for congressional elections would not solve the problem of corporate dominance of the political process. But it would be a great step forward if it could be implemented. Of course, the very people who would have the most to lose are the very ones who would have to pass it, so it will be a long struggle to get such a program passed. We'd better get started.