By John F. Di Leo -
When you have a problem, you look for a solution.
Whether you’re an engineer, a teacher, a scientist, or a cook, the goal is to solve an identified problem. The field of politics works the same way; the main challenge is that different sides have such different views of not only what the right solution is, but also of what the problems are.
Campaign Finance laws – which have always existed, but were turbocharged in the mid-1970s through the Federal Election Campaign Act and its successors – are written to deal with one simple problem: there’s too much money in politics, and money is corrupting, so we must reduce the amount of money in politics somehow.
The FEC has promulgated such rules as requiring the provision of name and address and occupation to go with one’s check… removing the tax-deductibility that most other “donations” receive… forbidding certain entities, like corporations, from donating to federal candidates… limiting the amount that a person can donate to a specific candidate during an election cycle… even limiting the total amount one can give to all individual federal campaigns in a cycle ($48,600). This last one is the subject of today’s news, as the Supreme Court has now struck such an overall limit as unconstitutional, while leaving the rest in place.
But quietly, under the radar for many years, there has been resistance to the very premise behind campaign finance laws, and only recently have public figures dared to question it out loud: WHO SAYS there’s “too much money” in politics, and on what grounds? Why is the concept of the total amount of money spent on politics a problem at all? What if the entire concept of campaign finance reform is based on a false premise; what if the amount of money spent on politics is actually a good thing, and even more would be an even better thing?
Spending in a Capitalist Economy
The economy revolves around spending. We shop for ourselves and for others; we buy groceries, theatre tickets, books and jewelry, homes and furniture. We spend money on tuition, on utilities, going out to dinner. The more we spend on these things, the more the people employed by those industries benefit.
Spending on groceries helps the butcher, baker, and cashier, the grocery store chain’s stockholders, the farmers and ranchers who provide the vegetables and meat, the canneries or other food processors that manufacture the ready-to-serve soups and frozen dinners. The more we spend, the more all of them prosper.
Spending on theatre tickets employs the actors and musicians, the ushers and janitors, the costume makers and parking lot valets. Spending at a mall employs the clerks, the store managers, the truckers who distribute the goods across our huge country, the retail mall management companies and their stockholders.
This all should go without saying; we are happy to see money spent at the retail level, because we know – yes, even liberals know, though they rarely admit it – that voluntary retail spending employs so many people across our society, it can only be viewed as a good thing. We get concerned when people overspend – the addiction to shopping is a dangerous problem, but usually still minor in comparison to other addictions.
The Left has built a tale of terror around spending on healthcare, in recent years, but that’s understandable, since such spending isn’t completely voluntary; we don’t go out looking for heart attacks and cancer.
But that doesn’t apply to campaign donations. With the relatively rare exception of political shakedowns (rare in most states, that is; they’re common enough in Barack H. Obama’s home state of Illinois), campaign donations are entirely voluntary. If I choose to donate $1000 to one congressional candidate or four hundred, it’s my choice. If I can afford it, what business is it of the state’s?
And so the Supreme Court ruled. If it is uncoerced and the citizen can afford it, the state has no business stopping me from making those donations. If I find 435 candidates with whom I agree enough to want to see them win seats in the House this year, then I have every right to exercise my freedom of speech by contributing to them.
Spending on Political Campaigns
How is money spent in a political campaign?
- Printing – which supports both US paper and ink manufacturers and the local printers who typeset and print these massive runs of cards, brochures, and yard signs.
- Mailings – which helps fund a national postal service struggling in an era of email and automated bill payment.
- Radio and TV ads – which employ voiceover actors and advertising agencies, and fund the radio and TV stations that provide us with our news and entertainment.
- Office rental – which supports a struggling commercial real estate sector by providing temporary tenants while full-time, long-term tenants are sought.
- Staff – here’s the greatest variety, as some campaigns are all volunteer and some have numerous employees and interns, but these roles are often splendid steps in the legitimate careers of advertising, project management, teaching and civil service, in addition to the rarer few who choose political consulting or legislative assistance as careers.
- Restaurants and Banquet Halls – most fundraisers take place in pubs, hotels, or eateries; a third to two-thirds of the cost of a political dinner ticket goes straight to the dining establishment, supporting the cooks, waiters and busboys in exactly the same way that a wedding or cotillion does.
Is there anything undesirable about any of these functions? Does either the right or the left in today’s America have anything against employing print shops and papermakers, postmen and anchormen, actors and landlords, college interns and waiters? These activities, occurring every two, four or six years, in hundreds of thousands of federal, state, county and local districts, are a huge part of the American economy.
If political spending were to end today, the pain would be felt in all these areas and more. So nobody’s actually calling for the spending to stop; the Left just wrings their hands about it and acts as though it’s a terrible negative, when in fact it is no such thing. In fact, it is a positive. The more money campaigns can spend, the stronger our nation’s economy could be.
Few decisions are as important to our nation as who represents us in Washington and our state capitols. These people determine our tax levies, whether our industries can thrive or be driven away, whether our children will have to go to war, whether our neighborhoods will be safe from convicted criminals, whether our borders will be safe from invasion. Congressional seats involve communicating these issues to half a million people; Senate seats involve communicating to five, ten, even twenty million. It takes money to do that.
In the past thirty years, hundreds more television channels have popped up, along with internet and subscriber radio stations. Some congressional districts, and most Senate districts too, have multiple metro areas to saturate. To educate your electorate, you need to be on the radio stations they listen to, the TV stations they watch, the mailbox they check for their bills and subscriptions, the billboards they pass on the way to work.
This costs money. Any intentional reduction in the ability of the candidate to raise the money needed for such communication is a frontal assault on our electoral process.
The Sources of Campaign Dollars… and their Competition
Candidates get money to spread their message from a number of sources: wealthy candidates may self-fund; most must raise money from private donors and political action committees, and of course the political parties donate to the extent that they can (as both parties get less popular, however, they raise less and so have less to distribute among their candidates). From the individual who gives $25 to the big donor who contributes his $2600 maximum, every dollar is appreciated, and every dollar is needed. Reaching the public in the modern era is harder than it ever was.
But what happens if the candidate doesn’t reach the voter? Who ever asks that question? What if the candidate can only afford to advertise on the biggest stations, which some minority of voters don’t tune into? What if the candidate can only afford to mail to “likely voters,” so the ones who only vote every third or fourth election don’t get his mailings? What if the candidate can only afford to be on the stations that have the best viewership, so he has to give up on reaching the viewers of offbeat cable shows and other minority programming? Then there will be a segment of the electorate – five percent, ten percent, twenty percent – that he has no prayer of ever reaching. And then how will that segment of the electorate make their decisions when they get to the voting booth?
This is the dirty underbelly of the campaign finance movement. There is political campaigning that goes on, completely outside the campaigns themselves, and it’s almost completely (not completely, just almost completely) one-sided in favor of the left. Campaign finance laws don’t affect this other, under-the-radar campaign activity.
Who has the ear of the voter, outside the offices of “Citizens for Smith” and “People for Jones?” Where else might the voters get their “news,” if not from the candidates themselves? From the newspapers, the TV news shows, the talking heads programs of cable and public television, the teachers’ union and other labor unions.
- From childhood, the average voter – especially a certain type of voter in a certain type of school – has been told in class that “the Democrats are for the people, the Republicans are for the rich.”
- From childhood, the average person has thought that to be an educated voter, you just need to watch the evening news and read the daily newspaper, both of which are today overwhelmingly leftist in their slant, both in the stories they cover and in the way they cover them.
- From childhood, the average member of a union family has been told that the union will guide them in the decisions of their lives, so they should always vote for whoever the union says to support. “These are the union candidates. They’re for us. The other side is against us.”
- From childhood, we have watched national Democrats make happy, “non-political” guest appearances on our favorite TV shows… a smiling Michelle Obama visiting iCarly, a sax-playing Bill Clinton on the set of The Tonight Show. They may not talk issues on these visits, but these appearances – incalculable free positive press, overwhelmingly for the Democrat side – isn’t even registered as an in-kind contribution. Without ever having a politician of either party on the show, sitcoms and dramas alike have pushed a statist, anti-conservative line for decades, almost never granting even the courtesy of an alternate viewpoint (or painting the opposite viewpoint as nutty, as with the Alex Keaton character on Family Ties).
If voters receive contrary messages from the candidates themselves, they might poke holes in these theories… they might say “But, gee, I seem to agree with the Republican candidate on taxes, on abortion, on immigration, on jobs… on lots of stuff!… could my teacher or shop steward or beloved anchorman be wrong?” But if they never receive that contrary message, how can they have a chance to question their conventional wisdom?
There is a reason why the Left wants to limit the political candidates’ ability to fundraise. There is a reason why they want to limit the number of ads candidates can buy, the number of mailings they can mail, the number of brochures they can print. It’s because any money in the hands of a candidate dilutes the political strength of the “non-political” players in this very rigged game.
Defining a Solution
We began with a couple of terms… “problems” and “solutions.” We have seen how the claimed problem isn’t a problem at all. But before we close, let’s look at the definition of a “solution:”
A solution, in chemistry, is the homogenous dispersal of one product within another, such as mixing a syrup with carbonated water to make a soda pop.
How is that relevant here? Think of the last time you made icing for a cake: the more lemon you have relative to the sugar, the sharper the acidic lemon flavor; add more sugar, and it gets sweeter. Or think of a pasta sauce: the more red pepper, the hotter the sauce; add milk or cream, and you soften the heat, making it milder.
Or consider a mixed drink: In a cocktail, the “taller” the drink (the more mixers it includes, like 7-up or cola), the less alcoholic it becomes, without changing the basic shot of vodka at the base.
Let’s think of the American political scene like that cocktail. The core is unchanging, like the shot of vodka. It’s always there, every year. There is a newspaper op/ed page, an evening news show, a local union, your own shop steward, the teachers’ union.
The drink is then altered from election to election by the strength of the candidates themselves. If a candidate can afford to spend heavily, he may overwhelm the strength of the external messages. But if a candidate cannot afford to outspend that liberal core, his message will never get out. The news media and the pop culture will be able to define the election. The voters will taste only the vodka, unaware that there’s another side to it, another viewpoint, another possible approach to the problems of the day.
They’ll never admit it, but the violent, knee-jerk opposition to liberty in political contributions is rooted in this very aspect of the issue. They can make the debate look completely non-political, completely bipartisan, because they don’t propose setting any different limits for Democrat candidates and donors than they do for Republicans. It looks so fair, so honest, so “good government minded” on its face.
But as we have seen, the truth is the polar opposite of that corrupt line of argument. The modern Left opposes contribution freedom because an educated population is their greatest fear. They don’t dare allow the free exchange of ideas, which is possible only when the candidates can raise and spend as much as necessary to get their issues out.
The Left has found a way to manipulate the recipe of our Republic; for forty years, they have used campaign limits to stifle debate, to empower the mass media, to deny candidates their freedom of speech, and to deny the electorate the necessary information to vote intelligently.
The Left’s approach is indeed a solution, but it’s not one that anyone truly interested in “good government” could ever endorse. Thank Heaven the Supreme Court is finally pushing back on these outrageous attacks on American liberty.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based trade compliance trainer and transportation expert. A former political activist and County Chairman of the Milwaukee County GOP, he has now been a recovering politician for almost seventeen years.
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