08 November 2012

Can elections be bought?

The great paradox in the debate over limiting campaign donations has been the way apologists for unlimited donations, by individuals or corporations, argue for their inefficacy. Defending donations as a form of "speech," the apologists seek to refute the argument that large donations corrupt the election process by citing the numerous occasions when the candidate who spent the most on advertising, or had the most spent on his behalf, still lost. Sheldon Adelson is the apologists' new poster child, after serving as a sort of moneyed bogeyman throughout the year for the opponents of unlimited donations. The casino magnate, once Newt Gingrich's primary patron, is estimated to have spent $53,000,000 on the 2012 elections, with very little to show for it. As NBC News points out, the four biggest individual donors this year all supported Romney -- or, more specifically, pro-Romney Super-PACs -- in vain. By comparison, the largest individual donor to Democrats or allied SuperPACs spent less than one-quarter of Adelson's wager.  The dreaded Koch brothers don't appear in NBC's top five because the network lists the top donors to "candidate-specific" PACs, and the Kochs apparently didn't focus on individuals this cycle.

If we are to indulge suspicions of bought elections, we can't really conclude whether anyone bought the 2012 elections until we know which candidates actually received more private donations, directly or indirectly. If it turns out that Obama and sympathetic PACs received more money than Romney and his surrogates, would the opponents of unlimited donations admit that Obama's friends had bought the election? Probably not, since the pro-Obama total is presumed to include many more small (not to mention non-corporate) donations than the pro-Romney sum, and most critics object to the size of individual donations, not to the principle of donating to campaigns. For now, presuming that Republicans spent more, the evidence at the polls indicates that they failed profoundly to buy the Presidential election. Does that prove that there's nothing to be afraid of when billionaires throw money around?

The more paranoid opponents of unlimited spending will probably note, not without a sigh of relief, that the bad guys simply did not spend enough this time, citing the widespread lack of enthusiasm for Romney among the true believers as a reason. It's impossible to know whether there's an objective tipping point to be reached by greater spending on campaigns. We can guess that, had Romney won, some people would say that the sum that proved insufficient in reality had been sufficient, in the alternate reality, to buy the election for the Man From Bain. Campaign spending is to paranoid Democrats what fraud is to paranoid Republicans: the unfair advantage that can be used to explain away every defeat. On the other hand, the apologists for unlimited donations are not mere civil libertarians. While insisting on billionaires' constitutional right to "speak" as much as they can afford to, they also express a hope that free spending in the "marketplace of ideas" will counter the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the chimerical "political class." When the apologists argue that spending limits only benefit incumbents, they clearly expect unlimited spending to change the nature of political campaigns. Both sides in the dispute might well agree, each for its own reasons, that the Presidential election was closer than it might have been because of unlimited donations. Could either side prove this? I'd accept nothing short of exit polls showing that voters minds' were changed by a critical mass of ads as evidence. But I suspect that news reporting, biased or not, did more to change minds than advertising, perhaps especially in the final week that saw the President working in a nonpartisan manner on disaster relief and allegations of a big lie about outsourcing in a pro-Romney ad. Perhaps the billionaires should get into the news media business if they really want to influence elections.

A real objection to unlimited spending is that it turns elections into a matter of competitive bidding for ad time among the donors rather than a debate in which all parties or candidates are presumed equal. The real affront to democracy is not Republicans outspending Democrats, or vice versa, but the way corporate-subsidized Bipolarchy prices alternative voices out of the marketplace of ideas. When the most convenient means of access to the electorate is for sale to the highest bidder, all candidates cannot be equal. When only billionaires are thought capable of waging credible independent campaigns, something has gone wrong with democracy in America. Even noting this objection, however, I question the ability of political advertising to change minds. Too much of it is reminiscent of political commentary in general. When it isn't simply or crudely ad hominem, it usually has the rhetoric of preaching to the converted. If you can tell that a Democrat or Republican is talking, you can shut him or her out according to your biases. Americans disagree about ends as well as means today, so it's hard for anyone to change a voter's mind by saying: you want this result but your party won't provide it, while ours can. Nor is advertising likely to take the confrontational tone possibly necessary to convert many viewers. It's one thing for an ad to say that your candidate is wrong, another for it to dare say you are wrong, and explain why. Advertising is most likely unpersuasive even to the swing voters, who presumably at least recognize partisan rhetoric when they hear it. We may not resolve the Bipolarchy gridlock afflicting the nation today until one party rethinks the art of persuasion altogether. Doing that may change the rules of the game more significantly than any regulation of wasteful political spending.

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