Sunday, July 25, 2010

Buying Elections

I have a device at home that can be used to insulate myself from all forms of advertising, political or commercial.  It is called the tv remote control.  Whenever the show I am watching stops for a commercial break, I switch to another channel that is not running commercials, then switch back after a few minutes.  Or I might keep watching the second show until it takes a commercial break.  The point is, I try to avoid watching commercials of any kind.  People with DVR's have even better tools to avoid watching commercials.  It's not that I'm not interested in hearing what political candidates have to say.  I just spent three solid days listening to speeches and discussions of political issues.  (That's my idea of a fun weekend in Las Vegas.)  It's just that I don't find advertising of any kind very informative or helpful.

 So whenever I hear worried talk about the ability of moneyed interests to "buy" elections, I am a bit resistant to that idea.  I can't be the only person who tries to stay out of reach of candidate ads, and I doubt that most people believe everything that advertisements throw at them.  They couldn't possibly believe it all, because the commercials for each side contradict the other side.  More likely, people like to see their views reinforced in ads for the candidates they favor, and they probably tune out the commercials for candidates on the other side.  People generally know that all commercials are biased at best, and outright misleading or fraudulent at worst.  They also know that commercials can't give you a full picture of a candidate's position or qualifications in 30 seconds.  I think it's also true that a lot of advertising only exists to cancel out the other guy's advertising, so at the end of the campaign voters are not much better informed than they are at the beginning.  So I like to think that no one can buy my vote.  All they can do is spend money to try to overcome my resistance to all forms of advertising.  Nevertheless, we know that commercials work, and that sheer quantity of advertising can overcome resistance and is helpful to maintain awareness among supporters.  Some of  it can even make valid points in a powerful way.

Given that effectiveness, it is legitimate to worry about whether a candidate like Meg Whitman, for example, has too much power because she has so much money to buy advertising for herself.  It is also legitimate to be concerned about the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which held that Congress may not regulate corporate spending on political advertising.  I heard an interesting panel discussion about this decision at the Netroots conference this weekend, describing Congressional efforts to "fix" some its worst aspects, as well as a potential campaign for a constitutional amendment overturning it.  I agree with the panelists that this decision is questionable enough that it should be corrected, even though we still don't know exactly how harmful its effects may turn out to be.

But overturning Citizens United would not end all of the problems of money in politics.  Even before that decision, individuals still have the ability to spend vast amounts of money on independent expressions of their opinions.  Corporations and individuals can also still contribute to candidates or parties directly.   And while I take issue with the Supreme Court's conception of a corporation as an association of individuals--in fact a corporation is a legal entity distinct from any individual--the Court is right that human beings do direct the activities of corporations. Corporations may be inhuman, but only humans can devise political messages. Given the questionable premises of Citizens United, however, a good case can be made for limiting its effects or overruling it by legislation or constitutional amendment. Then we still need to figure out a way of eliminating  the ill effects of all forms of money in politics.

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