June 10, 2012
Money and Politics: Part II: More Money =Less Participation?
The evidence of the enormous influence of big money in national and local politics in the USA today is overwhelming. If the Democrats lose the Presidential election, the role of virtually unlimited big money will need to be addressed if the US is to remain a democratic country.
The most recent evidence is reflected in the recall election in Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker survived a massive effort to unseat him, after his controversial successful effort to limit collective bargaining for teachers and government employee unions. Several Democratic state legislators went AWOL in order to avoid voting on these measures, although ultimately they returned—all this some months ago.
Wisconsin is the home of the Progressive Party; at the turn of the 20th Century, progressivism initiated much of the social legislation at the state level that was implemented during the New Deal at the national level in the 1930s. That political landscape has changed in the 21st Century. Wisconsin is now deeply divided between the Democratic progressivism of former Senator Russ Feingold, and the conservatism of Governor Walker.
Walker’s resistance campaign to recall could be a preview of the national election in November. Big Money PACS rendered important assistance. The biggest contributors to Mr. Walker included Bob Perry, the Houston, Texas, homebuilder whose family has spent more than $8 million so far in this election cycle, Foster Friess, the entrepreneur who was the leading benefactor to Rick Santorum’s run for the Republican nomination, Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who provided millions to Newt Gingrich in his run; and Charles and David Koch, whose group helped finance millions in advertisements for Walker. The Koch brothers and their super PAC are financing anti-Obama ads all over the country and will be major players in the Romney campaign.
In Wisconsin the tally in favor of Walker was $60+ million vs. $18 million anti-Walker. Wisconsin state law allowed unlimited contributions to Mr. Walker’s campaign, mirroring the free flow of money into presidential campaigns via federal super PACs that were allowed under the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
Despite the advantage of incumbency, it now seems probable that pro-Romney forces will outspend the pro-Obama side. The 2012 national election will cost billions. In company with the Supreme Court’s contorted logic that money equals speech and that corporations are people, just like you and me, and therefore entitled to the same protections for speech, this represents a major setback for fairness in the political marketplace. It is hard to believe that virtually unlimited money in elections, coupled with the present efforts in a number of states to make voting more difficult, not easier, through voter identification requirements and rolling back early voting opportunities, will make America more—not less—democratic. We now achieve maybe 35-40% actual voting in the pool of eligible voters in national elections. Why are we making it harder to participate?
In addition, contributing mightily to the Republican advantages in the upcoming national election is “the Fox news effect.” Fox News is now the most watched “news” program in national television. Its previous slogan, “fair and balanced,” is now a joke. It operates as an arm of the Republican party, relentlessly trashing Obama and the Democrats. The Rupert Murdoch publishing empire, recently somewhat damaged by the “hacking” scandal in Britain (which closed one Sunday newspaper and resulted in indictments of several newspaper executives) remains a major force in American politics. The New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News are reliable anti-Obama outlets. While, for example, MSNBC on TV and the New York Times might be seen as counterweights, they reach far fewer people.
Most of the money siphoned into political campaigns finance negative advertising. Negative ads turn off voters. Ironically, the more money we have sloshing around in the political arena, the less participation we promote in active politics. After years of effort, all these trends now combine to soil the activity of politics itself, thus making government an enemy, rather than an instrument of policy.