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Column

The time has come to reset America’s broken politics

In a recent wide-ranging column, I had only space enough to touch on my thought that we need a reset of American politics. Several readers (well, actually, one reader) asked that I drill down on the topic. Here goes.

Politics is not bad. The FDR speechwriter turned conservative columnist, Raymond Moley, observed: “Politics is not something to avoid, abolish or destroy. It is a condition of life, like the air we breathe. It is ours to live with, as we must, to control if we can. Either we must master its ways, or most surely we will be mastered by those who do.” I used to recite that as part of my political speeches, when I was on that circuit.

I know that sounds high-minded, and our Founders were certainly not without their personal ambitions. Yet, their overriding concerns were to establish order, harmony and prosperity in our new nation. These three objectives are still paramount, with conservatives tending to put more emphasis on order, liberals more to harmony.

The question is how we play the game. I worry that over the course of our 200-plus years as a nation, we have seen, slowly, the pursuit of public life shift perceptibly from virtue toward ambition, from public service to self.

We have transformed our politics from that of “standing for office” (“Here I stand, take me and my thinking, or vote for the other fellow.”) to campaigns that are often painfully negative and often only for the uber-wealthy.

Candidates at the local level, for school board and city council, for example, often still do stand for office. And when I was running for the Legislature more than half a century ago, my opponents and I never said a bad word about one another. To do so was bad form. As a young candidate for the Legislature, I was able to raise enough money at beer-and-skittles, $5-a-pop fundraisers to run a campaign and pay for some ads and billboards.

I worry that we might be on a slippery path today, toward rule by billionaires, the rest of us but puppets in their game. In our past, political party organizations gave opportunities to “little guys” like Harry Truman and Richard J. Daley. But, alas, parties have withered; and now it seems only those with big bucks need apply to play in our important political game.

So, what to do? First, the effective use of low-cost digital communication may provide access to the voters for non-billionaires.

Second, robust use of public financing of campaigns, as in 13 states, could maybe keep the little guy in the game. Wealthy candidates who eschewed the limits of public finance would bear the onus of having dissed the rules that others accepted, which might help the less well-funded candidates a bit.

Third, maybe more civic-minded types will say, enough, and stand for office. They would mostly fall on their swords at first, yet maybe could ignite a trend that would start isolating the billionaires. For example, young Marcus Throneburg in my central Illinois plans to stand for the state’s Senate via the new, national Alliance Party (Google it). A former elected county board member, Marcus is not na´ve. He is just grievously offended by our present politics.

I have sophisticated political friends who would, I am sure, tsk-tsk that my musings here are daft. I think instead this a call for a reset of our broken American politics.

Note to readers: For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

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