The Founders didn't contemplate television.

In the late eighteenth century, before mass media existed, campaigning for elective office surely involved meeting as many of your constituents as possible, attending town meetings and shaking hands. Although newspapers and brochures played a role, the signal to noise ratio must have been far higher than today.

The decline of standards in campaign advertising, the vituperation and personal attacks, the absence of any substantive debate on principles or beliefs, all point to several obvious conclusions:

  1. A politician stands or falls on his or her television advertising. It takes a tremendous sum of money to buy television ads.

  2. People with personal wealth have a significant advantage over less wealthy opponents (even incumbents), but are not necessarily smarter, more ethical or better leaders.

  3. A candidate is beholden to the people who contribute to campaigns, and is likely to carry out their will while in office, to ensure they contribute again next time. A candidate will oblige significant contributors even in contravention of the voters' desires, because they have shorter memories than the contributors do.

  4. Public financing of campaigns has failed to make this process fairer, because politicians still need private money to get public money.

  5. Limits on amounts of contributions are ineffective, because contributions to PAC's and national party committees allow wealthy contributors legally to circumvent these limits.

  6. Neither Republicans or Democrats are likely to fix the problem.

Here is a modest proposal for restoring the health of our political process: prohibit any campaign spending entirely. That's right, prevent all candidates from accepting any contributions, or spending one dollar of private, public or personal money, on campaigns.

Let's force all candidates to campaign via personal contact and the Internet. Millions of us are on it. Special Web servers and newsgroups could be set up to handle the candidate's debates-- while including the commentary and reactions of others as well. For those of us who aren't online yet, the newspapers will pick up the slack, reprinting transcripts of the net traffic. T.V. has its place too, carrying debates, not advertisements.

Let's force political campaigns back onto the high ground.