What Will $100 Million Buy You?


campaign finance

Holland, MI

I’m no expert on campaign finance law, and I don’t know the degree to which Citizens United has tilted the electoral landscape (Sean Trende has argued it hasn’t been that consequential), but among the many arguments for not owning a TV is the surfeit of political advertising thereon. The indispensable Bridge magazine (indispensable for Michiganders, that is) has a recent article on campaign spending in MI, wherein spending on the governor’s race and the senate race will top $100 million. I’m not as worked up about campaign spending as a lot of people are, so long as there is sufficient transparency, but the amount of “dark money” poured into the Michigan campaign is deeply concerning. This money is dark indeed, for the contributions can be made without disclosure.

It is virtually impossible for the average voter to trace the origin of all this money, nor is it really possible to identify the reasons why someone who is not a citizen of this state would be so concerned about the outcomes of our elections. The assumption that money buys influence may have some truth to it, although likely not as much or not as significantly as people may think, but it’s safe to assume that no one is going to spend $5 million on something unless they believe they are getting something worthwhile in return.

An excess of money into the campaign system not only further tilts the political system to the advantage of those who are making such large contributions, but deepens the sense of drift many voters already experience – the sense that something is going on of which they are only dimly aware and over the outcome of which they have no control. Walter Lippmann once compared the modern voter to a spectator in the back row of a foreign movie: you know something is happening, but you don’t really know what it is, and so it deepens this sense that you are being carried away by a powerful tide. The “omnicompetent” citizen becomes a myth, and perhaps a useful one to the power brokers who have the means, or so they believe, to move the tide to their favor.

One of the central problems with money is that it is unrooted. It flows into the cracks and crevices of social life; it is a giant wave which sweeps away everything in its path, including local autonomy and deliberation. It now becomes possible for moneyed interests who have no connection to a place to interlope in direct and indirect ways. No offense to the Koch Brothers: but what gives them the right to tell us Michiganders how to vote for governor and senator? What business is it of theirs? And if they think it is their business, then come and make the argument to me. I take it to be a fundamental principle of social life to stay out of other people’s business univited, but if you stick your nose in there you better be a) prepared to explain why you think it’s necessary, and b) prepared to have it punched anyway. Now, alas, the average voter is reduced to throwing punches at phantoms. Or worse, the average voter has become so enervated that he or she no longer has the energy to throw a punch.

Money is a shield influence-peddlers can hide behind, just as they hide behind the 1st amendment. Whatever the 1st amendment speech clause does, however, it is not intended to be a barrier to conversation, or a means for making speech less accountable. But under current campaign finance law that is exactly what it has become. Individuals can spend obscene amounts of money and, when called to account, invoke the first amendment as insulation. I understand the reasoning behind the expression “money is speech,” but also understand the noxiousness of it. It is speech in only one of its dimensions, as a mechanism of persuasion, but not as a medium of social intercourse. This is in part because money can flow only one way, while speech is reciprocal. Speech connects citizens to each other; money-as-speech divides them.

While money is used to hide speech rather than express it, it at the same time corrodes speech. Of nothing is Orwell’s claim that the bad use of language must necessarily lead to bad politics, and that bad politics requires the corruption of language, more true than the campaign process. The ads are designed to confuse voters, to impugn unjustly someone’s reputation, to make the lesser seem the greater and the greater the lesser. It is the rankest demagoguery. It is choreographed deception, the lie that begets only more lies. In our day, Orwell said, language is largely used to defend the indefensible. Whatever else “freedom” of speech might mean, it can’t mean that people – our leaders, no less – get to lie with impunity.

And we take it. We know none of it is true, or is only half true, but we blithely accept it as the price of doing business, with little attention to how such systematized deception corrupts and corrodes our public life. But there is every reason to assume it creates greater cynicism, and thus disengagement.

Again, the money-brokers have no interest in the truth. Their interest is only in outcomes. Because they don’t live with the people they’re trying to “persuade,” it matters not to them whether we regard them as liars. They have no stake in our lives, and no capacity to experience the shame that most of us might experience if we’re called to task face-to-face. There are no reputational interests at stake. They are shadowy figures who are never struck by the light, who never have to meet their accusers, and are never made to account, except in the most narrow legal sense.

So let’s start by changing the law. Here’s a proposal: money may not be spent on campaigns within a state that does not originate inside that state. I can see no constitutional or legal reason why states ought not be allowed to place such restrictions on campaign spending (it would be akin to qualification requirements discouraging carpetbagging). The devil is in the details, I realize, but no citizen of any state should make peace with individuals financing state campaigns when those individuals don’t live here, and whose interests are not necessarily the best interests of those of us who do.

Clearly federal attempts to manage campaign financing have largely resulted in failure. The history of campaign finance reform in Congress is the history of unintended consequences. Every time Congress tries to restrict the flow of money, the actual flow increases. Members of Congress who, almost by definition, have benefitted from the current system are unlikely to have the incentive to make truly substantial changes to it.

Why not use the tools of federalism to make some inroads into the money problem? According to the Constitution, states have the power to regulate the times, places, and manner of elections. If the states would stipulate that money can be given to campaigns within the state only by citizens of the state, it would lead not only to greater transparency, but would also invigorate the democratic sense of place as well as the liberty-protecting principles of federalism. It’s a recommendation so obvious that it has virtually no chance of success.

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