Monday, November 1, 2010

Money can and can't buy elections

Here in California, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has spent many, many millions of dollars in her quest for office--vastly more than her opponent. Yet she'll probably lose, as did Arianna Huffington's wealthy then-husband some years before.

On the other hand, a giant coal company bought itself a West Virginia Supreme Court judge who then voted in that company's favor in a case that had been pending.

You can find abundant examples of cases where money did get someone elected, and many others where lots of money failed to do so.

The Freakonomics guy claims money achieves tiny advantages in elections--way disproportionate to the amount spent. However, even if that's true, in a close election a tiny advantage produces exactly the same win as a giant one. Remember the congressional election in the state of Washington that was won by a few hundred votes out of millions cast?

So--what's the answer overall?

The frustrating answer, I believe, is that money talks but it has to be spent wisely and it can't overthrow settled opinions in most cases.

Thus you could spend a billion on the next Senate seat election in Alabama and you still won't elect a Green Party candidate. Likewise a Tea Party type won't win in a statewide California election.

But that's the boundary of the envelope. Within that boundary, money speaks. And don't delude yourself into thinking that it's just those campaign ads you see on TV, along with the glossy fliers you get in the mail. Huge--by the standards of those who aren't billionaires--amounts of money have been poured into creating and maintaining a squadron of fake think tanks (fake because they start with their conclusions, which always serve the interests of the billionaires), ownership of the AM talk radio world, and one network (Fox News) wholly dedicated to promoting Republican interests--up to and including employing Republican politicians when they aren't in office and donating millions to Republican political campaigns.

There's also a dirty tricks infrastructure which sometimes obvious--as in the Swift Boat campaign that defeated Kerry's presidential run--and sometimes sub rosa--as in the whisper campaign to convince Republican voters in the 2000 North Carolina primary that McCain had adopted a Negro baby he'd fathered--which succeeded in defeating McCain's presidential run so Bush could win.

One other hidden aspect of big money in campaigns is that it's easier to lie, and the Republican noise machine routine promulgations jaw-dropping whoppers. But when you have a thousand talk show hosts and think tankers and politicians all saying the same set of lies using the same emotionally charged language each week, it's easy to believe the lies. And by the time responsible journalists have done the spadework needed to debunk the lies of the week, a new set of lies is spawned, burying the truthtellers in an avalanche of propoganda.

And while you're perfectly free to buy your own airtime to oppose this "wall of sound"...they're perfectly free to spend, literally, billions, drowning the unions' ad buys, try as they might.

Plus when union money is used in politics, they're required to reveal it--whereas the Supreme Court's Far Right Five have enabled billionaires to fund their campaigns in total secrecy, even though the Supremes' Citizens United ruling said just the opposite. But it hasn't worked out that way.

So, within certain limits, money wins elections.

Not all agree of course. I listened to Fox News programs this afternoon as they gloated over their coming victory, constantly touting the fact that public opinion favored them. And never--not once--mentioning the role of the billionaires' money in creating and shaping that opinion.

Because in the Fox News universe public opinion is formed by tens of millions of voters reading all the bills in Congress and making informed judgments about the effect of those bills on their own lives and those of their loved ones. In the Fox-0-verse there is no such thing as right wing propaganda fueled by billions of billionaires' dollars.

Lastly, the role of vast monies and vast lies in this election becomes even more ironic given that most Republican voters will not benefit from "their" victory--just the reverse, in fact. And this victory will come from well-financed lies, not from an honest debate of the actual issues. Yet I believe the average rank and file Republican voter is personally honest.

So--how can such honest people rejoice at winning through a tsunami of lies?

That's the power of primitive tribalism. Honesty is reserved for one's tribe. For everyone else--anything goes. That's the kind of morality the human race practiced a million years ago. I guess that makes it conservative to preserve such ancient ways today.

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