"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Achieving the public funding of election campaigns in the United States will not be easy. The army of rich interests standing in opposition to “Clean Elections” is formidable. In order to win, we need to build a political coalition that makes up in numbers what we lack in wealth.
But there is a problem in constructing a movement big enough to secure political victory. Inevitably a coalition of such scale will be composed of individuals and groups who, aside from their common support for democratic reform, find themselves in sharp disagreement on other matters. Those disagreements will have to be managed if our movement is to be successful.
The need to deal with disagreements however does not mean papering them over in the name of unity. A successful coalition has to be able to tolerate debate among its members without letting ideological differences impair their ability to cooperate on the issue that brings them together.
Democracy Matters itself represents precisely that kind of coalition. For example, at the 2003 DM Summit, my speech opposing the imminent war in Iraq promoted quite a bit of dissent. Yet those disagreements – fully aired in the discussion that followed my presentation – did not damage the organization. An important lesson had been learned. We could work together for democratic reform despite our disagreements on other matters.
This respect for political diversity – indeed the need to accommodate political disagreements – is important to keep in mind in addressing what I call the Lou Dobbs phenomenon. Dobbs is a CNN news anchor who in recent years has become increasingly vocal about the dominance of corporate wealth in American politics.
In his latest book, War on the Middle Class, some of what Dobbs has to say would fit very comfortably with Democracy Matters’ goals. He writes that “corporate America holds dominion over the Republican and Democratic parties through campaign contributions, armies of lobbyists that have swamped Washington, and control of political and economic think tanks and media.” To correct this control, he writes, the United States needs “the complete public financing of all elections.” He reports that he loves “the idea of our elected officials being beholden to public money and the public interest rather than to corporate America and special interests.”1
Dobbs’ support for the public financing of election campaigns has given our cause the potential for political prominence, and we should applaud his endorsement. At the same time however, much of what Dobbs has to say in the book and on television - particularly about immigration and international trade - is, at least in my opinion, deeply flawed.
Dobbs regularly demonizes undocumented immigrants from Mexico, repeating implausible claims concerning their depressing effects on wage rates – claims that are rejected by almost all students of the subject. He also misunderstands the meaning of globalization. He does not perceive that the reason this country has a trade imbalance has almost nothing to do with NAFTA or other recent trade agreements we have entered into. Rather it is the increased productive capacity of previously poor countries like China and India that is responsible for the growth in our imports. But there is literally no discussion in his book of the extensive literature detailing the damage that would be done both to consumers in this country and also to those emerging from poverty in other countries if, as he would have it, imports from U.S.-based corporations were “subjected to tariffs, duties and fees on any product and service they produce overseas for consumption in the U.S. market.”2
The point here is not to argue the specifics of Dobbs’ views. Rather it is to provide a heads-up about the challenges that face us as we advance. With growth, our diversity will increase and with that, disagreements too will become frequent. The way we handle the resulting debates will go far to determine whether our movement will be able to sustain itself. If our community is to hold together, we will have to accord respect to each others’ points of view. Valid contrary arguments must be acknowledged and the one-sided selection of evidence avoided. A full opportunity for dissenting ideas must be available, and we must be able to disagree without splitting apart.
In this, Dobbs himself is a poor model. On his nightly “Lou Dobbs Tonight” he rarely provides a fair opportunity for the expression of ideas with which he disagrees. And when a guest with such ideas does appear, the tone of the ensuing discussion is anything but calm and respectful. If we descend to a level where opposing ideas are dismissed out of hand and without serious consideration, we will not be – cannot be - successful.
Instead, we must manage the diversity of viewpoints that confronts all democratic societies. In our movement, as in society generally, all ideas should be subject to vigorous and searching critiques. In that way, we can provide an illustration to the country of how politics can and should be carried out, even as we advance our “Clean Elections” agenda.
1. Lou Dobbs, War on the Middle Class (New York: Viking, 2006), p. 1, 201.
2. Ibid., p. 206