We once fought to divorce ourselves from a king; now the struggle is to disempower kingmakers.

Between 1775 and 1783, nearly 25,000 Americans were killed or wounded in a seemingly impossible struggle to divorce themselves from their aristocratic rulers in England. In the end, they succeeded in establishing a model for self-governance that has been copied and refined across the globe.

It’s never been a perfect union, but it has been constantly working to improve itself.

Now, the world’s first great national democracy is under siege, not from foreign powers or isolated terrorists, but from the power of the new American aristocracy. The billionaires who rule America today lack the titles of old aristocrats, and the power of a king or an army, but they’re nonetheless becoming the majority stockholders in America Inc.

Only a few of them are known. Most are invisible. They include old wealth and new, in landed estates, on Wall Street and at corporate headquarters. And together, they are slowly strangling not only American democracy, but the country itself.

“The political process is drowning in money,” said former Sen. George Mitchell earlier this month.


And so it is. Over half of all members of Congress are millionaires. Their average net worth is roughly equivalent to the worth of 18 American households, and it’s getting worse. During the last recession, the wealth of average Americans declined by a third. In Congress, it increased by 20 percent.

Meanwhile, most of the self-described “patriots” of today are busy tracking down “dangerous” welfare cheats and immigrants while opposing campaign finance reforms.

And what is it that those well-heeled members of Congress are doing for us? Here’s the daily “to-do” list:

 In the morning, raise money for re-election and meet with lobbyists.

Spend the afternoon blocking any action that might be distasteful to their donors, thereby ensuring gridlock in government.

In the early evening, try to sneak into a large budget package any small provision that would give a leg up or advantage to their friends.


Then, head home for a speech on fighting for “the people.”

Is it any wonder that Americans hold government in such low regard? In 1964, over 75 percent of Americans trusted government. Now that number is 25 percent. During that time span, not coincidentally, the trend lines for campaign spending have moved on an opposite course.

Political spending is now growing at a faster rate than health care, the gross domestic product or average incomes.

People have been fighting back, in whatever way they could, for decades. The first significant campaign finance laws date to 1925. They were strengthened in 1971 and again after Watergate, when the country was in the mood for real change.

But those provisions have been attacked, ignored and overturned, most notably by a compliant Supreme Court, which seems to believe that any inanimate object has a God-given right to overpower the voices of ordinary voters.

It’s fair to say that when it comes to campaign finance reform, the decks are stacked in Washington in a way that isn’t going to change anytime soon. All of which prompted Sen. Angus King to remark, recently, that he is “deeply worried about the future of our democracy.”


The power of money has left ordinary citizens with no way to fix the problem short of direct citizen action. Mainers knew that back in 1996, when they passed the first Clean Election law to provide for public financing for in-state candidates.

The results of that initiative were immediate, tangible and significant.

While campaign spending increased in states across the country, in Maine it flattened out. More people who aren’t wealthy were able to run for office. More women ran, and then rose to leadership positions. Eventually, 80 percent of Maine candidates were Clean Election candidates.

And then the special interests went to work, in Congress and in the courts. Most devastating were Supreme Court decisions undercutting spending limits and so-called “matching funds,” which had helped level the playing field between well-heeled candidates and others. The Maine Legislature joined in by eliminating Clean Election funding for candidates for governor.

Now the Clean Election folks are back at it with a new referendum to strengthen public financing of campaigns. Their initiative will restore key components of the original act, turn the lights back on to expose anonymous donors and increase campaign violation fines.

This isn’t the solution to all our campaign finance problems, but it’s one way to help turn the tide.


Of course, the people who like the current system just fine will be out there defending their privileges and attacking the Clean Election system as “welfare for politicians.” Mainers saw through all that in 1996 and, hopefully, will again this year.

Our democracy needs us. Do your part with a “yes” vote on statewide Question 1.

Alan Caron is the owner of Caron Communications, a strategic consulting and communications firm based in Freeport. He can be contacted at:


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