Boston. St. Louis. Bruins. Blues.
After an epic matchup, three games to three, hockey fans the world over are eagerly awaiting Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals this Wednesday. We watch out of hometown pride, love of the game, or the simple joy of seeing star players like Zdeno Chara and Alex Pietrangelo compete.
But whatever our particular reasons for tuning in, hockey fans in both camps know the fight will be fair and the team that plays the best will win. That’s because we know how Chara and Pietrangelo and their teammates got into the NHL in the first place: through endless practice, sacrifice, persistence, and skill.
Now imagine the Stanley Cup final was played by the rules of American politics. Imagine the players were recruited not on their ability to skate and handle the puck but on how much money they could muster to finance their campaigns.
Instead of Chara working his magic on defense, Bill Gates would be missing the puck and hitting the wall. Instead of Tuukka Rask aggressively defending the goal, Warren Buffet would be cowering behind the net. As soon as the whistle blows, Jeff Bezos would skate up to the ref and hand him a wad of hundred-dollar bills…
Sure, we might find the absurdity of if entertaining at first, but who would actually stick around and watch a game driven by wealth and devoid of skill?
Which begs the question: if we expect the “best of the best” when it comes to professional sports – athletes with superior and relevant skills, referees who enforce the rules – why don’t we demand the same in politics? Elected officials impact every aspect of our lives, but when it comes to choosing who gets to be one, we let money take the place of service and experience and ideas.
Take the 2018 election, the most expensive mid-term in American history by far at nearly $9 billion. Although a handful of national races drew genuine small donor support, those were the rare exception to the big money rule. For the vast majority of the 468 House and Senate seats – and thousands of state and local races – big money ruled.
Fully three-quarters of all the money that funded federal campaigns came from a fraction of one percent (0.07%) of Americans giving $2,700 or more, while 99.9% of us had virtually no say in who would run for office and what issues they would address. Most of the money raised went to incumbents, who won nearly nine times out of ten and outspent their opponents by a factor of five to one. As in elections past, the donor class was largely comprised of corporations, lobbyists, and other well-heeled groups whose interests rarely overlap with the needs of ordinary Americans.
The picture in New Hampshire is not much different, where a majority of all campaign contributions to state candidates come from less than one percent of Granite Staters, according to the last Open Democracy Index, and corporations are still allowed to directly fund campaigns.
Fortunately the story does not have to end there. In New Hampshire and on Capitol Hill, new legislation is advancing with bipartisan public support to create a totally new system of funding political campaigns. Instead of big money from a few, these “Voter Dollars” proposals would put power back in the hands of millions of ordinary citizens through $25 certificates they could freely assign to the candidates of their choice running for State Senate, Executive Council, and Governor. Similar proposals in Washington would do likewise by assigning each voter $200 of their tax dollars, or a match on personal donations, to support candidates for federal office.
In return for accessing such small donations from their constituents, candidates would have to say no to big private money from special interests and run grassroots campaigns. In the process, we the voters would get to assess whether they have the real skills of leadership and representation it takes to be a public servant.
In Washington, the sweeping reform bill HR 1 is making its way through Congress under the leadership of Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) and now faces its toughest test in Sen. Mitch McConnell. Meanwhile, the state legislature in Concord just voted to make New Hampshire the 20th state in the nation to call for a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United and Voter Dollars continues to be deliberated in committee.
How soon these and other sensible reforms become law depends on all of us. Whether you’re a Bruins fan like me, or a Blues fan, we are all fans of democracy and want government to work for us. It’s time we make the game of politics a game of service and skill like it’s meant to be.
Dan Weeks is Advisory Board Chair of Open Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Concord, N.H. He lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.