John Nichols and Robert McChesney were in Troy NY recently to give a lecture promoting their book on "Dollarocracy." To promote the lecture they wrote an op-ed for the Albany Times Union. In today's edition, reader Frank S. Robinson disputes the authors' claim that big money is stripping Americans of their democratic birthright. To Robinson, it's a truism that "you can't buy elections." Critics like the authors, he claims, can't produce "a single example of a U.S. election 'bought' with campaign spending." For his part, Robinson can cite the many cases when wealthy candidates and their backers flushed millions down their toilets in losing efforts; in particular, he cites eBay magnate Meg Whitman's failed run for governor of California. Robinson's beef with the authors turns out to be a matter of semantics. He acknowledges that the role of money in politics is problematic. "Candidates' need for money from donors who are not disinterested is corrupting and often amounts to bribery," he writes. But that's not the same thing as buying elections or somehow disenfranchising voters, which is what the authors supposedly claim.
What does it mean to buy an election? Robinson would certainly concede that an election has been bought if someone bribes people to vote a certain way. You might also say that an election has been bought if someone bribes the people in charge of counting the votes, though in such cases most would rather say that the election has been "stolen." Now what if the candidates have been bought? Robinson concedes both the possibility and the actuality of "bribery" by donors. If money proves to have determined the choices voters have, would the voters' freedom to choose change the essential fact that the election has been bought?
If there were only ever two choices in an election (as opposed to two "real" choices) the answer would have to be an undisputed yes. In reality, the more powerful the office, the more alternatives to the two major parties, the ones most likely to be "bought," are available. Robinson might fairly argue that an election isn't "bought" so long as you can choose a Green candidate or someone further to the left. His own argument is that campaign donations by businesses ("important, legitimate parts of our society, with democratic rights to participate and be heard") would be problematic only if campaign spending proved "one-sided," with all the money going to the pro-business candidate. Robinson exposes the limitations of his own worldview in his dismissal of that possibility. "The two parties are well-matched in the money department," he writes, "and the amounts spent tend to cancel each other out." Implicit here is an assumption that the Republican and Democratic parties by themselves give voters a meaningful choice that isn't compromised by money. Nichols and McChesney, on the other hand, argued in the Nation magazine preview of their book that in the 2012 presidential election "big money beat big money" because the Obama campaign "collected more large contributions than did the Republican's." They do not believe that the Democrats are a "grassroots" party, although many Democrats obviously will disagree. So long as the Democrats depend on big donations, the authors suggest, a conventional two-party contest will not be as clear or "free" a choice as Robinson assumes. As long as other options exist, however, Robinson could call any contest a free election. Whether any election is ultimately "bought" may depend on how you account for Americans' persistent refusal to vote outside the Democratic-Republican box, whether for Greens or parties to their left, for independents to the right of tea-party Republicans, or the real exceptions that transcend the left-right dichotomy. If you want to blame a national lack of imagination, or collective stupidity, then money is off the hook. But if you want to blame that stupidity on structural causes rooted in policies consciously designed to discourage political imagination, you might be able to piece together a trail leading back to an original purchaser -- but in such a case it is the political system itself, and nothing so trivial as a particular election, that would prove bought and paid for. The real question would then become: what are you going to do about it?