A more realistic approach to limiting the influence of money in politics
Jul 12, 2012

A more realistic approach to limiting the influence of money in politics


Cenk Ugyur, host of the popular The Young Turks (a progressive, internet-based US politics show), frequently like to deride the pervasive and damaging influence of Big Money in US politics, especially in the post-Citizens United era. He is right to do so for this is, indeed, among the most corrupting influences in our politics. However, his proposed solution to this problem is a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream that ignores the less sexy, but more practical, options available to make genuine progress on limiting the relative influence of money in politics. 

A constitutional amendment?
His solution is to work towards a constitutional amendment that could overturn Citizens United and limit the currently unlimited corporate campaign donations made possible by that ruling. WOLF-PAC, heavily promoted by Ugyur, is a political action committee designed to raise funds and organize towards pushing this constitutional amendment. Most political movements seek to promote a legislative agenda or a ballot initiative but, due to the Supreme Court ruling, only a constitutional amendment can work in this case and so that is what they are doing.

Except, a constitutional amendment can't work either. It is incrediably, incrediably hard to actually pass a constitutional amendment. It requires a super majority in both houses and ratification by three quarters of states. Some ten thousand constitutional amendments have been proposed in the House with only 27 actually going through as part of the constitution. The last significant one set the voting age at 18 back in 1971 (a minor one on Congressional pay was passed in 1992). Just based on the numbers, it is hard to imagine this is going to be possible. 

However, a plan like that proposed by WOLF-PAC is even less likely to get passed than the average proposed amendment. The very same big money influencers that we may dislike are not going to just sit on the sidelines if this constitutional amendment started to gain prominence. They will certainly lobby as hard and as effectively as ever and succeed in stopped this just as surely as they succeed in stopping so much else. The time for a constitutional amendments is when you already have an enormous plurality of support (say half of states) and you want to go the whole distance to get to the 75%. It is not something for a fledgling movement. More realistic goals have to found. 

How money in politics works:
Why is money even effective in the first place? Direct corruption is prohibited and is actually pretty low. There is the direct benefits to the politicians in terms of the revolving door of future lucrative jobs in select private industries or lobbying on their behalf. Most of the influence, however, comes in the form of donations to the politicians campaigns. This money is turned arround and spent on ads, mostly TV ads. Politicians are perennially desperate for money; congressmen in the House have to get reelected every two years and may spend upwards of half their time in office fundraising for the next election. They do this for good reason, the candidate with a big money advantage wins an enormous portion of the time. So the temptation always exists - even for the genuine caring politicians, let alone the sleeze bags - to shift one's policies and rhetoric to be able to attract the money. This is the mechanism by which lobbyists pour money into the system and get results back. 

The lions share of the money is spent on TV ads. Despite the predominance of attack ads, despite the inability to say anything new and meaningful in a sixty second spot, despite the focus on personalities not policies, these ads have one thing going for them: they work. Most people are apathetic and ill informed about politics and so they make their decision based on these brief TV ads and the amount of these ads is tremendously predictive of the outcome of the elections. The entire edifice of money flowing into politics to buy policy outcomes rests on the ability for that money to do the one thing politicians actually need: get them re-elected. 

Removing the influence of money:
That is ultimately our fault as citizens. Shame on us for being so ignorant, apathetic, and easily swayed. Thankfully, in this acknowledgement that at the end of the day a democracy stands or falls on the strength of its people, we are provided with the solutions to reducing the corruptive influence of money in politics. While the constitutional amendment would be a panacea, fixing many of our problems in one fell swoop, the alternative is a slower, tedious, and difficult approach. 

What we need to do, in short, is to make the citizenry vote for politicians not based on the money they can dump into horrific advertising, but on the actual issues. We need to educate people on the issues and get them motivated to care and act on those issues. We need to build movements that push the issues into the national conversation the way, say, Occupy did. We need to build alternative media like The Young Turks and like this humble blog so that people are not dependent on the mainstream media and its allegedly neutral and non biased stance whose main outcome is to engender the passivity and disinterest and ignorance on the important issues. That is, we have to build a ground up, democratic movement in our countries that gets results in people voting, as informed citizens, on the issues they care about, and not the person whose face they remember the most from the TV. None of this is easy, and the influence of money will remain to a degree, but it is the only realistic way forward so we may as well embrace it. 

When politicians know that the chief way to get elected is to say things the citizenry wants, and not the things the donors wants which will give them the money to buy the citizenry, then they are going to say what the citizens want. They care about getting elected, the money is only a proxy to that and as soon as it becomes less effective it will be prioritized less. Even today issues do matter and we can see how, for instance, in New Hampshire policy changes on gay marriage occured because of change in the views of citizens. But that was an issue without big corporate money against it. Inspiration can come in more removed places. Consider the success of the Tea Party in changing rhetoric and policy despite being the upstarts displacing the establishment; while they had some big money behind them, a lot of their success was in voter appeal and the seats they won in 2010 because of it. 

The irony here is that for a consitutional amendment to ever get the kind of momentum needed to actually pass, everything I wrote here would have already had to happen. The big grassroots political movements, the voter engagement and information, the alternative media, the pressure at the ballot boxes, the defense against ad spending against this; all of this would have to occur regardless in order for this to pass. I would not worry about WOLF-PAC specifically or wasting time now on pushing a constitutional amendment when it is such a pipe dream. But there is work to be done and there is nobody but us to do it. 

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