This article appeared in the November 2000 issue of The California Journal.
Despite a year in which virtually everyone from right to left has professed earnest support for serious campaign finance reform, attempts to rid our political system of the corrosive and corrupting influence of big money have yielded only the most negligible of results.
Personally, I have no solution to offer. However, from time to time, I do channel messages from a long- deceased member of the O'Connell clan who, in death as in life, survives by filching scraps from the trash bin of Jonathan Swift, the 18th-century Irish clergyman and political sage who authored "Gulliver's Travels" along with other social commentaries.
Of late, my enterprising if eternally ill-nourished clansman has stumbled upon Swift's discarded musings on the "lamentable conjunction of money, politics, and elections in America." As we shall see, Swift seems especially well-informed about public affairs in California, a land he calls "that singular Avatar of Americana."
So, without further delay, here is how the illustrious dean would have us sever, once and for all, the chains that today bind money and politics as securely as did the snares the Lilliputians wove round the unfortunate Capt. Lemuel Gulliver.
Time has obviously made you Americans a remarkably timid lot. For a people who, in my age, brashly threw off the bonds of tyranny and set out to tame a continent, you now appear singularly incapable of freeing your political institutions of the dictatorship of dollars. Even in that wondrous, sunlit upland known as California, voters have consistently shirked their responsibility for insulating the conduct of the public's business from the domineering hand of powerful interests, whose seemingly bottomless satchels of loot have become so profound a distraction to those who tread the halls of government.
The problem, as I view it from my current spectral perch, is that you have been much too tentative in addressing an issue that requires the administration of a broad axe.
If history reveals any lesson, it is that the partial correctives you have embraced in the past -- term limits, campaign finance laws, bans on corporate donations -- only seem to have tested the scoundrels' capacity for ingenuity and deceit. The more laws you have enacted, the more venal and corrupt the political system has become.
Clearly, then, nothing is to be gained from further restrictions of how much money candidates are permitted to amass or dispense. Such fetters are futile. If you are sincerely interested in saving your system of representative government from a legion of widely lamented curses, it is time to consider the very simple but effective expedient which I have in mind: abolish elections!
Now before you recoil in horror, give my proposal a moment of dispassionate thought. Only the meager few among you who actually do vote on a regular basis would likely object. By contrast, the great majority of you would be more apt celebrate the end of the innumerable annoyances, indignities, and affronts associated with electoral campaigns.
My modest recommendation stands in stark contrast to earlier gestures at enhancing your system of representative government, especially those measures affecting term limits and campaign finances. The former were intended to deny political life everlasting to your duly elected leaders, irrespective of the actual wishes of their constituents. Alas, this bromide has evidently resurrected more ghosts than were put to rest. Far from periodically cleansing your elective bodies, term limits have given rise to an eerie transmigration of souls to other, usually more elevated offices where presumably greater damage can be inflicted.
I am likewise baffled by your ambiguous gestures toward campaign finance reform. As I comprehend it, there are many among you who hold to the singularly American notion that the act of tendering largess to politicians, far from constituting prima facie evidence of bribery, is instead regarded as an expression of free speech. This being the case, you would afford such inducements and subversions the full protection of the First Amendment to your esteemed Constitution.
As one who has periodically taken pen to hand, I am naturally chagrined at how our common language is being repeatedly abused by your colonial tongue. Free speech? Preposterous. In California, I am informed, the charge for attending a private fete at which one might be permitted to grovel before the provincial chief magistrate can exceed what would be needed to feed an entire village for a whole year. Surely, when speech grows that expensive, it can hardly be regarded as free.
I beg you to give ample consideration to the sundry ancillary virtues of abolishing elections outright. Behold: Without elections, there would be no feckless candidates and no political campaigns insinuating themselves into private homes and businesses in the quest for donations and votes. Gone would be the noisome barrages of political advertisements crowding out the truly entertaining commercials during your television and radio broadcasts. A fatal blow would likewise be struck at that alchemist's cabal of political pundits and editorialists who now conspire to render tedious and utterly predictable that which should be inherently dramatic and compelling.
Above all, countless citizens would be spared the guilt of not attending studiously to the parade of issues and candidates. Instead, they would be granted the greatest freedom of all --- that of pursuing their private lives blissfully ignorant of public affairs!
Now let me anticipate your concerns. You will want to know how to parry the objections of skeptics who will doubtless complain that Representative Government is not something with which to trifle. Blunt their attacks, my friends, by requiring them to demonstrate precisely what Representative Government and the holding of periodic elections have to do with each other. As your legislative bodies have so richly demonstrated over the years, elections have exceedingly little to do with representing the public's interest. Indeed, for much of your history, the numerical majority of the public was officially discouraged from being represented in your legislatures and councils.
How then, you inquire, would Representative Government be safeguarded in the absence of periodic elections? Fortunately, you in California have already devised the ideal alternative to elections as a means of choosing real people to conduct the people's business. I speak, naturally, of the Super Lotto.
If galvanizing the citizenry's attention is what one desires, mere electoral contests pale in comparison with a lottery promising the instant bestowal of unimaginable wealth. In the place of a dreaded General Election, you would hold a festive Selection Day. Instead of enduring the expense, audacity, and civic outrages of the seemingly endless electoral process, you would on this single joyous day so rich with anticipation populate all of your governmental offices from governor down to local councils with citizens picked completely at random from the most comprehensive slate of candidates known to exist - that of course being the roster of Californians who have received written assurance of being Grand Prize Finalists in the next Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.
Under my plan, a citizen, if chosen, would be obliged to serve a term of perhaps seven years in office. Absolutely no one would be excused. Those insistent on foregoing public service would be required to serve a commensurate period lodged in accommodations provided, say, in a certain walled community in the City of Folsom.
Befitting a lottery, ample material rewards would go to those selected to serve in public office. If only to militate against corruption, the chosen few would receive a tax-free salary of one million dollars a year while in office. They would also be assured a generous pension as well as a comprehensive, non-HMO health care with full prescription drug benefits for life.
But you ask: Who are these people? What qualifies them for public office? Well, gaze about you. Who are the people now in office? What other than an ample dose of panache, a soupcon of arrogance, and a calloused sense of self-respect qualifies them for public service? Who among you has not plaintively wondered why a land so fertile in nearly every respect has turned so barren when asked to produce inspired political leadership?
I dare say my proposal would provide for a much more interesting and representative government than you have now. People from all walks of life, age groups, genders, ethnic backgrounds, religious and moral persuasions, personal quirks, intellectual predispositions, and physical appearance would be included. Your republican ideals would be reborn!
This, then, is my modest proposal. I pray you will adopt it. However, should you believe my scheme to be too radical or unwieldy, might I suggest a less draconian but still superior method of selecting your public officials. It is a procedure that involves, metaphorically speaking, the use of a small stone, a sheaf of parchment, and a pair of shears...