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Confessions Of A Neo-Mugwump

Hands count money over US Capitol building dome, on flag and star texture, 3-21-02
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This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

I've just been called a neo-Mugwump and I don't like it one bit.

Actually, I haven't been called a neo-Mugwump to my face (I guess I don't move in the right circles). But people of my ilk have been.

Neo-Mugwump is the term Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol used in her terrific 2003 book, "Diminished Democracy," to describe those who are always trying to "reform" politics to make it cleaner and more professional. Neo-Mugwumps like campaign and lobbying reform and they don't like PACs, fundraisers, fat cats and special interest groups.

I've been a classic neo-Mugwump for my whole life. But I'm ready to throw in the towel and give it all up. I think. I'm pretty sure. Maybe. In any case, it's all because of Professor Skocpol.

I was in high school during Watergate and started reporting on politics in Washington ten years later. I always believed that any political reform short of public financing of campaigns would be imperfect, messy but still worthwhile. I spent a lot time reporting on abuses of the campaign finance system; there was a lot to report. Same with lobbying.

I certainly believed in the idea of reforming the system, even if I was skeptical, even cynical, about the efficacy of reform. I had seen unintended consequences turn several high-minded reforms into deforms. I had observed that the lobbyists and political evil-doers were wilier, better financed and more plentiful than the Hill staffers who wrote the laws and the agency workers who try, I guess, to enforce them.

Still, I thought having less money, not more, floating around campaigns and lobbying couldn't do anything but help. I've not been at all persuaded by the Supreme Court's argument in the most important campaign finance case, Buckley v. Valeo, that money is equivalent to speech in politics and so should be regulated only with great reluctance. Cleaner is better.

Professor Skocpol thinks this attitude "treats politics as if it were something dirty and implicitly hold up the ideal of an educated elite safely above and outside of politics." She named people who think this way after the Mugwumps, high-minded Republicans who refused to support the GOP candidate in the election of 1884, James G. Blaine ("Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine.")

The main theme of "Diminishing Democracy" is to show how large, national chapter organizations – groups that tended to be made up of active volunteers from all classes – have been replaced by "professionally managed advocacy groups without chapters or members."

You know who they are - the groups that stuff your mailbox and call during supper. Skocpol believes these groups have reduced participation in civic life, limited opportunities for people from different class and communities to work together on important things and generally diminished our democracy.

One of her ideas to improve things is let non-profits back into politics and elections. The tax laws intentionally make it very hard for non-profits and membership groups to get involved in campaigns and elections. In the spirit of neo-Mugwumpism, it was decided that non-profits shouldn't be "partisan" or give directly to candidates and campaigns.

Skocpol says this is the opposite of what we need, that "the United States should repeal or modify all kinds of rules designed to create firewalls between partisan and nonpartisan activities."

Instead of firewalls, she argues, allow organized groups to campaign and contribute in elections. Stop trying to insulate one world from the other. Let people who are civic-minded get involved in politics through the groups they are active in, if that's what they want to do. It is also possible that in doing this, the business world would actually have more and better competition for political influence.

More broadly speaking, perhaps a cure for today's unimpressive political situation is not less politics, but more politics. The sanitary view of politics is snobbish and wrongheaded.

Having broken my share of stories about mini-campaign finance scandals, I now think they are not nearly as big a threat to effective government as I used to think. The bigger problem is personnel. So many aspects of politics today, especially the fundraising, are so unpleasant and so undignified, that lots of fine people wouldn't ever consider running for office.

Letting non-profits be partisan and political could bring great people into the process. Letting them spend money freely could even make fundraising less onerous. In the same spirit, we should probably let individuals give a lot more than they can now.

This is reformer sacrilege, I know. But maybe the way to repair failed regulation and reform isn't with more regulation and reform, but less. Perhaps the political marketplace should be more open. The current closed system is losing trust and legitimacy steadily and has been since the 1970s.

So that makes me a reformed neo-Mugwump. I think.



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By Dick Meyer