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McCain-Feingold Isn't Progress; It's Progressivism

July 04, 2001|TOM KRANNAWITTER and BEN BOYCHUK | Tom Krannawitter is director of academic programs at the Claremont Institute. Ben Boychuk is managing editor of the Claremont Review of Books

The Supreme Court dealt another blow to free-speech rights last month, ruling 5-4 that the government may regulate how much money a state political party spends in support of its own candidates. Some members of the House of Representatives, scheduled to debate the House version of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill when they reconvene after the July 4 recess, hailed the ruling.

Many Republicans and Democrats and a majority of the Supreme Court seem to agree on two things about campaign finance. First, money equals corruption. Second, because there is an awful lot of money in politics today, our politics must be awfully corrupt. That's why they say government should further regulate how Americans speak and spend their money.

Why all the excitement on Capitol Hill for campaign finance reform, which limits the most important kind of speech--political speech? And why, for all the sanctimonious talk about "getting special interests out of politics," does no one mention the interest that will benefit most from increased campaign finance regulation: government itself? The answer is Progressivism, a radical philosophy that swept across the United States a century ago. Regulating how Americans participate in politics is just one of its legacies.

The brainchild of such Darwinian thinkers and political leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, John Dewey and Herbert Croly, Progressivism sought to replace limited, constitutional government by consent with unlimited, bureaucratic government. Government by bureaucratic fiat was regarded as an innovative reform because professional bureaucrats would be impartial in doling out justice. Unlike elected, partisan officials, professional bureaucrats would not be beholden to "special interests" or corrupted by money in politics. Sound familiar?

The one thing that has stood in the way of Progressive politics is the Constitution. The U.S. founders understood that, historically, governments usually have been the usurper of liberties. Thus they believed it important to protect individual rights by explicitly limiting the power of government in a written constitution.

For the Progressives, however, this is a problem. Limited government can neither regulate our lives nor redistribute our wealth in the name of "social justice." As Woodrow Wilson put it, the U.S. Constitution is little more than "political witchcraft" from the past, and ought to be discarded so that we can get on with the Progressive project of building a "national state."

Progressivism made great strides with the stewardship of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The New Deal and the Great Society were the means of enacting and enshrining many of the regulatory schemes that Wilson and the original Progressives only dreamed of.

Naturally, as government increasingly regulates how Americans do business, Americans want to influence those regulations. And there is the rub.

Citizens respond to the over-regulation of progressive government by speaking out and spending money to influence progressive politics. Government in turn says it needs to restrict how Americans engage in politics, further regulating our lives, because now there is too much money in politics.

It's no coincidence that every major campaign reform law in U.S. history has followed a surge in the growth of government regulation. The Tillman Act of 1907 followed the Progressive Movement; the Hatch Act of 1939 followed the New Deal; the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, amended in 1974--the most sweeping attempt yet to implement government control over campaign finance--followed the Great Society.

And so the Progressive cycle continues.

Campaign finance reform is nothing more than a cover for increasing the size and scope of the federal government, which already exercises too much unconstitutional power over its citizens. Whether "reformers" identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans is unimportant. They are above all Progressives, and they are enemies of what is left of constitutional government in the United States.

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