Don’t Sell Your Vote
“I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections, but as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.” – Billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson.
The difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe is simply this: a bribe goes directly into someone’s pocket while a contribution gets deposited into a bank account. The degree of influence remains pretty much the same in either case.
But if we want to adhere to the Constitution, then we shouldn't try to stop corporations or really rich folks from investing millions of dollars in support of a candidate they like. The Supreme Court has so ruled, and they are right.
On the other hand, Justice Anthony Kennedy offered this strange comment in support of the Court's decision: "We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."
From where I sit out here in the woods, the amount of money flowing into our elections certainly has the appearance of corruption. Perhaps it just looks like bribery and the candidates who benefit aren't influenced by it. But there's no question that what little democracy we have left is being swamped by the waves of cash that keep pounding down our electoral process. And that's the fault of every eligible American voter.
We keep electing – and re-electing – people who can be influenced or bribed or corrupted to the extent that they work only to promote the interests of the most elite members of society. We've been doing that for such a long time that it's become almost normal, and we've grown comfortably numb to the reality that our democracy is controlled by an elite few.
A new study was just released by Princeton and Northwestern universities that compared how well government policies during the past three decades have matched up with the stated preferences of the American people. Their conclusion confirms what most folks already know:
"The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it."
We also know how much it costs to buy influence within the halls of Congress and all 50 states. In 1976, total spending in the contest for the presidency was around $67 million. By 2000, spending for all Congressional elections was estimated at more than $3 billion dollars. The 2008 presidential campaign alone ate up about $2.5 billion of candidate and PAC money out of the total of more than $5 billion spent that year. 2012’s total reached $7 billion while both presidential candidates raised more than a billion in cash, new records that should last – well, until the next election.
All that cash flows into a PAC or a candidate’s account, then a great big chunk of it buys advertising. Most of that chunk gets swallowed by six of the largest corporations on the planet, which own most of the large media outlets that distribute news and entertainment in America. In order of size, those corporations are: Walt Disney Company; News Corp; Time Warner; Viacom; Vivendi Universal and Bertelsmann.
In effect, those corporations can buy access and influence with campaign contributions, then get most of their cash back when they sell time and space for political ads. Media corporations make a profit when candidates use donations to sell themselves to voters. That may be good business, but it has nothing to do with democracy.
The real problem, however, is not political advertising in general, or the special interest groups who finance them, or the corporations that distribute and profit from them. It’s not even a big problem when those ads distort the truth, because advertising is pretty much all about spin and distortion while political ads have always had a loose relationship with the truth.
The problem is that the ads seem to work. Their purpose is to buy your vote, and far too many of us are willing to sell.
Advertising works because most voters rely on them to paint a picture of the candidates and issues. They work because a bold lie can be easier to accept than a subtle truth. They work because we tend to listen to the loudest, most dramatic voice. They work because we don’t reject candidates who try to sway voters by spending buckets of money. And they work because not enough people actually vote.
The only way to diminish the influence of advertising is to completely ignore it. Never repeat a word of what you hear in any political ad – it might be the truth, but you can't trust the source. Get your information from reliable sources who don't have a horse in the race but have a track record of being accurate. Share that information whenever you can. Most of all, encourage everyone to vote.
When political ads stop working, political activists will stop buying them. Once we stop selling our votes, we can start to reclaim ownership of our government.
Of course, those who are accustomed to buying influence will just go back to bribing politicians under the table. But that's a crime, and we already have ways of dealing with that...
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