Get Money Out of Politics
Despite all the divisions and distortions that dominated the 2012 election season, many Americans from across the political spectrum were able to see eye-to-eye on one thing: that the huge amount of money being spent by candidates for public office is undermining democracy. It’s a problem that can only be solved if approached with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.
Many people experience a deep level of despair after they’ve been through a campaign in which moneyed interests have played such a large role in both parties, supplying hundreds of millions of dollars to each side to ensure their future influence over the policies that both parties will pursue. That despair reinforces the powerlessness that many experience in our work lives and that then plays a role in limiting the fulfillment we get even in our personal lives, where we too often encounter people who have internalized the “me-firstism” of the competitive marketplace and view us too often through a frame of “what can you do for me to satisfy my needs?”
Even though we all yearn for loving connection and mutual recognition from others, that yearning seems to be constantly undermined by the actions of others who are too scared to break out of their own narrowly defined roles in the society and acknowledge that they too have the same desire for real loving connection. As a result, many of us come to believe that everyone is just out for themselves and, as a result, idealistic plans will never come to fruition. We come to believe that to be “realistic” is to accept the basic contours of power and wealth in this society and then find a way either to access that wealth or resign ourselves to accepting our positions in the economic hierarchy, and accepting our political powerlessness as inevitable, thereby accepting an unjust economy and social realities that most people resent or, at times, even detest.
The Power of Advertising
The despair and resignation that most of us feel is intensified by advertising, which presents and misrepresents “everyone else’s desires” in a way that makes each of us feel that our yearnings are peculiar rather than widespread. Ads leave us feeling that to be “normal,” we need to do what the ads are trying to get us to do. This manipulation works to the extent that we are isolated from each other, rarely talk about how foolish the ads and consumption-oriented media are, and live in a culture of separation, depoliticization, and nonparticipation in democratic movements. That is another dimension of why money is so powerful—if people were deeply connected with each other on a daily basis and engaged in true communities pursuing democracy, money would not be as powerful.
The point is not hard for people to grasp. If it takes close to a billion dollars per candidate for someone to run a successful campaign for the presidency, tens of millions of dollars to run for the Senate, and many millions to run for the House, then the candidates are going to have spend a great deal of time both during the campaigns and during their tenure in office playing up to those people in our society who have the ability to donate large amounts of money. On September 13, 2012, the New York Times presented the details of some of the richest donors to the Obama campaign and described how their donations bought them access to Obama and his inner circle, which in turn shaped Obama’s vision of “what the people really care about.” Why should we be surprised, then, if tens of millions of potential voters do not show up at polls? They’ve already seen that it is not they but the rich who will shape the ideas of candidates in both major political parties.
A democratic system should be based on the notion of one person/one vote. But in the United States today it would be more accurate to describe the political arena as closer to one dollar/one vote. Closer, but not exact. Those with money often determine which candidates will be able to buy the television, radio, newspaper, and direct-mail advertising, which in turn determines who is taken seriously by the media and eventually by voters. If you haven’t heard much about a candidate (e.g., a Green candidate or a Libertarian candidate), you are unlikely to vote for that person unless you have a very strong commitment to that party and a willingness to stand up to friends who tell you that you are going to hurt a less principled candidate who will be the lesser evil in the election.
The Limits of Our Democracy
Money isn’t everything in elections—and it is quite possible for the richest campaigner to lose occasionally to another candidate who has spent less money. We saw that happen a few years ago in California when two very wealthy businesswomen, each with the ability to raise over 140 million dollars in their campaigns for governor and U.S. senator, lost to incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer and former governor Jerry Brown. But of course those Democrats had already proven their loyalty to wealthy donors, raised tens of millions of dollars, and courted powerful unions like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a forceful advocate of pro-incarceration and anti-rehabilitative policies in California.
So long as candidates prove themselves non-threatening to the wealthy and succeed at raising significant amounts of money from them, they can at times beat a better-funded opponent. In these circumstances, our votes matter in determining which of the two pro-capitalism candidates gets to win.
Lerner, Michael. 2013. Get Money Out of Politics. Tikkun 28(1): 7.