Public Campaigns on the Public Airwaves
Despite their negative image, I think there are many politicians who don't enjoy having to spend so much time fundraising and would rather have more time for public service; more significantly, I think there are many corporations who would rather not have to spend so much money on campaign contributions and would rather spend it on better serving their customers. There's only one player that benefits from the situation as it stands: the broadcast media. See the Columbia Journalism Review article Media Money for a review of how lobbying by media corporations and their trade associations quashed this reform, which Bill Clinton had proposed in 1998.
But even if we take cynicism to the extreme, media money should not have been able to quash this reform. It's not plausible that the media has more money than all the other corporate interests put together. If those other corporate interests spent their money lobbying for this reform, then even in the most cynical view, it would have gone through. This would reduce their costs for all their future political lobbying by large factors, which would be an enormous net gain for them. If we also assume as above that politicians would rather decrease the size of campaign budgets (an assumption requiring a bit less cynicism), then the other corporate interests would not even have to match the media lobby in order to carry through the reform.
So why then did this happen? I can think of a few reasons:
- No individual politician wants to be the one to offend the media lobby.
- Incumbents fear that this would significantly erode their advantage.
- Neither the corporate interests nor the politicians are used to thinking at this strategic level. They may be very adept at the game of campaign contributions, but the considerations above require thinking about the meta-game: the possibility of changing the rules of the game. They're too caught up in the game as it's played now. Thus the corporate interests and the politicians perceive this as a media issue and not as an issue affecting each of them.
Regarding the first point, if we look at what actually happened, term-limited Bill Clinton had already stepped forward as the one to take this risk. Legislators then actively stepped forward to quash the FCC. If they had just passively let it go through, none of them could have been singled out for blame. So this alone is insufficient to explain it. Regarding the second point, incumbents had an advantage even before the advent of radio and TV. They know the corporate lobbyists personally, and the corporate interests see them as known quantities with predictable behavior. So this would also be insufficient to stop the reform, if the weight of all the other corporate interests were behind it.
That leaves the third point. Thus, out of this exercise in extreme cynicism comes a ray of hope for our republic: if the parties concerned can simply be brought to see what's in their own self-interest, we can bring about this change, and begin a return to the democratic ideal of candidates competing freely in the marketplace of ideas to represent the voters' viewpoints.