We need more money in politics

Radley Balko writes about the Kentucky primary, in which Tea Party insurgent candidate Thomas Massie defeated incumbent establishment candidate Alecia Webb-Edgington:

The gist of it is that Massie got a ton of money from the libertarian Super PAC Liberty For All, and apparently this is bad because… reasons.  Balko quotes Washington Monthly‘s Ed Kilgore thus:

Wow. Wonder if the kid down in Texas [founder of Liberty For All — ed.] turned in a term paper to his poli sci class entitled “How I bought a congressional seat in Kentucky.”

This, taken charitably, is the usual argument against money in politics: A handful of super-rich donors will subvert and come to dominate the Sacred Institution of democracy by throwing filthy lucre at it, reducing a vibrant and robust form of government to a hollow and corrupt plutocracy.

But of course nobody owns Kentucky’s congressional seats, and thus nobody can buy them.  What Super PAC money does when it “buys” seats is largely buy advertising, which attempts to convince people to vote for the candidate being supported.  Those people — remember, you trusted them to vote just a few years ago before Citizens United came down — still get to choose for whom they vote.  This doesn’t matter to critics like Kilgore, who see voters as a bunch of ignorant and credulous rubes easily duped by whoever comes along and waves negative advertising in their faces.

Explain this to an opponent of Citizens United, and you’ll likely get a contemptuous eye-roll and dark mutterings about quasi-covert campaign organizations, Ron Paul’s delegate-“stealing”, and other insinuations straight out of a First Edition Shadowrun sourcebook.  All this infrastructure, it is implied, is bought and paid for by wheelbarrows full of Super PAC money — I guess there’s an entire underground market of Nixonian covert political operatives lurking just out of sight and charging enormous prices.  You’ll also get chided to quit being so naive, particularly if you press for details that never quite emerge, because opposition to Citizens United is usually a way for people to signal seriousness by predicting imminent disaster, and ‘splaining people their faults from an assumed position of authority goes hand-in-hand with the Serious pose.

And again, all of this infrastructure — or at least the bits that actually exist outside of bad fiction — is already available to the establishment candidates, and more and better besides.  That’s what political parties are — powerful insider networks with plenty of influence that exist to get “their guy” elected by all available means.  Parties already throw around a fuck-ton of money, which is apparently okay because look over there.  But more than that, parties wield a great deal of personal influence — well-established networks of media and donor connections, name recognition, campaign infrastructure, other incumbent office-holders — which is simply unavailable to outsider candidates.  Balko:

Kilgore is right on one point. Without the half million dollar infusion from the super PAC, it’s doubtful Massie would have won. And that of course is precisely the point. Strict limits on campaign contributions only further entrench the two major parties. If your views aren’t in line with establishment thinking, if the party machinery has backed a more traditional candidate with predictable positions, you’ll be starting your campaign in a hole. They have the phone lists, the donor lists, the existing office holders and the perks of their offices, name recognition, and the campaign infrastructure. It takes money to overcome all of that. It takes money to merely be heard. Take all the money out of politics (assuming you could—you can’t) and the two-party machinery advantages don’t go away. It just makes it more difficult to challenge them.

The fantasy underlying Kilgore’s position is that, without the money in politics, any citizen with a yearning to represent s/h/its community and a taste for Good Honest Hard Work could run for federal office and have a reasonable shot at succeeding — but once the filthy lucre flows in, only the very rich get to decide who gets nominated and elected.  Here in the real world, however, incumbents enjoy a massive electoral advantage precisely because they generally have access to all the party machinery Balko listed above.  Absent the free flow of money into political speech, our plucky citizen faces utterly dismal odds against an entrenched, well-connected, and heavily advantaged elite.  Donations from Super PACs begin to level that playing field.

Money, it turns out, is a lot easier to come by than party insider status.  Massie got half a million dollars from Liberty For All.  That’s peanuts in the political game — it’s a cheap Vancouver mortgage, or a half-assed venture capitalization.  You could get that kind of money on Kickstarter, for fuck’s sake.  Can just anyone lay their hands on half a mil?  Surely not — but it’s a lot more accessible than a position of power and influence in a major party’s federal organization, or a helpful last name.

The more money we get into politics, the less dominant insider status will be, and that strikes me as a very good thing.

(Will Wilkinson piles on.)


6 Responses to “We need more money in politics”

  1. 1 TMI
    May 25, 2012 at 09:01

    Money is speech. Political money is political speech.

    Congress does not have the authority to limit (adbridge) speech. Or, the press. That is, even if you make money for the stuff you print, evil profit, Congress still has no authority to limit your words.

    It’s in there.

  2. May 25, 2012 at 13:53

    You notice that nobody who advocates campaign finance reform wants to do anything about the incredible power of the MSM to slant stories and give free positive publicity to groups that they like. That’s because it’s not really about any principle, it’s all about WHO…WHOM.

    Everything in politics is WHO…WHOM. Only rubes like conservative white people believe otherwise.

    • May 25, 2012 at 13:58

      Yeah, apparently the corporations that own newspapers aren’t officially corporations or something. Special Pleading much?

      I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a case of malice rather than ignorance, though. Seems to me that a lot of people have an overly-romanticized idea about journalism as a Calling rather than as a profit-seeking industry, which leads them to see the news media as Crusaders, Bravely Seeking Truth rather than as corporations diligently seeking profit. I’ve blogged about this before.

      • 5 perlhaqr
        May 26, 2012 at 07:04

        Hunh. I wonder if that’s an exploitable bug. I mean, what does it take to be a “media outlet” these days? And how many newspapers are going out of business these days?

        “Podunk Times-Picayune, an ExxonMobil Corporation”

        Buy some small town paper, and then concentrate almost entirely on your web presence. The cost of a couple small-town journalists is probably peanuts compared to your average political campaign.

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