19 October 2010

Money doesn't buy elections, but does it buy politicians?

David Brooks's latest New York Times column is his attempt to dismiss concerns over the amount of money being spent on campaign advertising this year. His contention is that, beyond the most local level, money won't make a difference in any election. It's actually an argument against the effectiveness of campaign advertising, however. Brooks doesn't believe that campaign ads change people's minds, nor that a deep-pocketed candidate can buy enthusiasm through advertising when it doesn't already exist. He trots out the usual examples of John Connally in 1980 and Phil Gramm in 1996, which demonstrate only that the richest candidate doesn't always win, not that riches make no difference. His main point is that "money follows passion but doesn't ignite it." Money alone, he insists, can't create a successful candidacy from nothing.

Brooks also attempts to vindicate campaign donors, including those who donate anonymously to independent groups. These people aren't trying to buy elections, Brooks claims. "The donors give money because it makes them feel as if they are doing good and because they get to hang out at exclusive parties," he suggests, "In the end, however, money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties." The only people who don't feel good about campaign donations, he concludes, are the sour-grapes losers in the "political class" who find money an easy scapegoat.

The columnist's vague psychoanalysis of campaign donors misses the point of most complaints against money in politics. The deplorable fact of our political moment is not that money spent on campaign ads can buy an election, but that every politician who isn't a self-made multi-millionaire is dependent upon some fundraising apparatus during an election campaign. The centrality of the supposedly meaningless TV ads to every campaign forces politicians into a state of dependency that would certainly have troubled the Founders and Framers. If they were worried about the economic dependency of voters, imagine their concern over the economic dependency of elected officials. In their own time they knew an evil precedent in the Kingdom of Poland, a nearly-unique electoral monarchy where foreign money in the form of direct bribes to noble electors corrupted the process and fatally weakened the nation. Money may circulate differently here and now but politicians can't help but feel their dependence upon the fundraising process itself as it claims more and more of their attention while in office. As long as we accept the possibility of a difference between good political ideas and ideas that draw money, the role of money in politics should trouble us, regardless of who actually wins any given contest. For Brooks to dismiss our concerns and excuse the fundraising culture as an exercise in self-actualization is irresponsible to the point of frivolity. He assumes that people will simply tune out the ads, and his column advises us, "Don't Follow the Money," but the trends are too disturbing to ignore.

No comments: