How to buy an election
What does it mean that it’s possible?
With the November elections loomin
g, campaign donations are heating up. Sharron Angle, Republican Senatorial candidate for Nevada, received $14 million in the last quarter alone, to give one example. The topic of money in politics always raises the worry that a politician will “buy an election,” or that the richer candidate will win by virtue of the size of his war chest. But how can someone “buy” a free and fair election where people aren’t bribed to vote for a candidate?
Well, it costs money to get people’s attention (e.g. to buy television ads). And the more attention a candidate can afford, the more time he will have to explain why he’s the best person for the job. This makes sense to a degree, certainly at the edges, where one candidate has 100 times more money and 100 times more opportunities to present his arguments, or where one candidate doesn’t have enough money to even communicate his core views effectively.
But what does it mean that a candidate has a huge advantage when he has only 2 times as much money? It such circumstances, let’s assume that the poorer candidate can still afford to present his most important policy proposals, personality, political and personal values, and personal affiliations, and that there is a stark contrast between the two candidates. That’s what really matters; and shouldn’t that be enough? It clearly isn’t.
This means that, in many cases, democratic citizens are not strong or engaged enough deliberators to
withstand unimportant, trivial arguments and attacks. Because beyond that core pitch, that’s what’s going on for the most part.
Well-funded Democrats and Republicans don’t “buy” elections by communicating their most cherished, big ideas. The candidate with half the funds can do that. They “buy” elections, to a significant degree, by obfuscating the truth, by having the funds to waste air time on small “gotcha” points that, in reality, are not central. Citizens lack the time, ability, and/or interest to fill in the gap and present good counter-arguments to what candidates are selling. We need the other candidate to come forward and defend himself.
This should damage our conception of ourselves as good democratic deliberators, but only to a degree. It should really give us pause, though, to consider methods of limiting the way in which money in politics empowers such trivial, as opposed to central arguments.
The best place to start, in my book at least, is television ads, which make up 2/3 of spending on political ads. Too often, political TV ads are vehicles for small,
peripheral, sophistic points, a form of brain-washing that is difficult to counteract with good deliberation, no matter how enlightened the people. That’s how commercial television ads work; we wake up and decide, for mysterious reasons, that we want to buy Dove soap or a Burger King burger. When I think about money in politics, I’m not worried that some candidate or company will write or fund an article, book, or documentary that will convince people, through reasoned argument, why they’re right. I’m worried about people buying TV ads and getting citizens on their side without any real argument at all.
There are obvious First Amendment implications to ridding ourselves of political TV ads, but it’s not beyond reasonable discussion, insofar as the point is not less money in politics, or that some candidates or groups, depending on their viewpoint, cannot speak. It is merely that speaking through this venue—the 30 second TV ad—is detrimental to our political discourse, which the First Amendment exists to protect.
Image by Flickr user kevindooley used under a Creative Commons Attribution License