Does Money Buy Elections? When Billionaires Court Voters

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Thu, Oct 30 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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The Good Life - Does Money Buy Elections?

Another election looms, and the question on everyone’s mind is: Will the big donors get their money’s worth?

Cynicism about money in politics is a healthy response to our long history of cronyism. When $700 billion in bailout funds were distributed during the 2008 crisis, politically-connected financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs received the lion’s share. In the 1990s, the now-notorious Enron corporation strategically donated to both Democrats and Republicans to ensure that no matter who was elected it would have a seat at the table. Outside the for-profit sector, unions are also huge donors, as are rich environmental activists and well-funded groups, along with any number of other special interests. He who pays the piper — as the old saying goes — wants to call the tune, choose the instruments, and direct the players.

After indulging some cynicism, however, what should our next steps be?

One regular response is to call for more controls during the election process. We should, some suggest, pass stricter regulations to limit donations to election campaigns and we should empower more government agents to monitor how people spend their money on politics.

But calls for more controls in a free democracy should always be a red flag, and before we heed them we should consider two questions: How much should we worry about election spending, and will trying to control the money get to the source of the corruption of political power?

The questions are fresh, as the Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional the limits placed on how much individuals may donate to political committees and candidates. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the court held — properly in my view — that the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment were violated by FEC restrictions. To limit the amount of money an individual can spend is to limit how many pamphlets, posters, and other ads he can purchase, and to limit those is to limit speech. In a free society, individuals can put their money where their mouth is to promote any cause they want — commercial, religious, artistic, or political.

Fine. But what of the reasonable concern that big donors will be able to buy up lots of advertising and thereby buy elections?

Not a problem, I think, for several reasons.

One is the principle of political physics: For every Koch there is an equal and opposite Soros. That is, for every billionaire who commits huge money to one side, there’s almost always one on the other side doing the same. No historical evidence exists that the contributions of rich Democrats are consistently higher or lower than those of rich Republicans. And when one party does better in a given election, that always energizes the other side’s fundraisers to improve their results the next time. That is how competition works.

Another reason is that while money is an asset to an election campaign, it is not the only asset or even the most important one. Having large numbers of energetic volunteers is critical. So are the prior reputations of the candidates and their athlete and movie-star champions — and the creativity of wordsmiths and designers who come up with fresh slogans and eye-catching graphics — and the organizational skills of campaign managers — and having friendly media outlets.

So if we are to limit and control donations because they can affect the outcome of elections, then in principle we can limit anything that could affect election results. Should the FEC be able to tell us how much free time we can volunteer? Or how many famous people we can use as spokespersons? Or how many catchy new graphics and slogans we’re allowed to use each campaign?

A third reason is that the data show that the candidates who spend the most do not always win.

  1. In a Republican primary race in Virginia, Eric Cantor raised $5.4 million while his challenger David Brat raised $207,000. Cantor’s money paid for 1037 television ads, while Brat’s campaign could afford 65 ads. The result? Brat got 55.6 percent of the vote and clobbered Cantor, who got only 44.4 percent.
  2. In Hawaii’s Democratic primary for the governorship, incumbent governor Neil Abercrombie outspent challenger David Ige by a ten-to-one margin. Much of Abercrombie’s funding came from billionaire Lawrence Ellison. Guess who won? As The Washington Post put it, Abercrombie was “overwhelmingly defeated.”
  3. In the crucial final month leading up to the 2012 presidential election, pro-Romney spending was significantly higher than pro-Obama spending, but Obama won by a comfortable margin.

So clearly other factors are going on – and maybe we should give voters more credit than to think of them merely as puppets who are manipulated by big money and big media.

Which takes us to a fourth and most important reason.

If we are to be advocates of democracy in a free society, then we have to think of democracy as an evolving experiment in policy and in voter education. Part of democracy is the ongoing project of teaching people how to live in a democracy — including how to think critically about political advertising, however rough-and-tumble it is. And that education process is a long, slow, messy, multi-generational process.

Voters are capable of independent thought. Of course many choose to remain ignorant or become pigheaded or let themselves be dazzled. But democratic policy cannot take as its operative assumption that voters cannot be trusted to vote properly. It cannot coddle them with paternalistic measures designed to massage the number and kind of political messages they hear and see.

There’s a dilemma for too-much-money-in-elections argument: If you think voters really are mostly herd-followers of what the loudest advertising tells them, then you shouldn’t be an advocate of democracy. That is, if you don’t think they can handle such advertising, then you can’t think that they should have a say about important political affairs anyways. But if you do believe that voters can think for themselves, then you shouldn’t worry about their exposure to political advertising, however one-sided it is.

A free society must treat its members as fully responsible adults — including treating them as fully responsible for their political views and voting behavior. Any healthy democracy must set a high standard for voters to live up to, and democracy’s advocates must teach and otherwise empower voters to achieve it.

This column’s question was: Does money buy elections? That question is not to be confused with the related question: Does money buy politicians? We might be cautiously optimistic about the voters. But the disappointing large number of politicians for sale is a more difficult money-in-politics problem, one that deserves a column of its own.

Don’t miss last week’s column: Campus Sex and the Anti-Sexiness of the New Authoritarians.

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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