How do you define “big money”?
That question gets especially relevant every other year – this being one of those “other” years. The president is in the middle of his term, but every seat in the House and a third of those in the Senate are up for grabs.
So, the selective outrage about “big money in politics” is in full cry. I say selective, because my friends on the left regularly go on about how obscene and corrupting it is for conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers to have a much louder voice in the electoral process than average people like you and me.
But I don’t hear them complaining about liberal billionaires like George Soros, who is just as politically active as the Kochs, and whose voice in American politics is also vastly more prominent than that of average voters. Not to mention the raft of Hollywood multi-millionaires who use both their money and star power to amplify their voice in politics. I never hear liberals demanding that people like Oprah, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck be muzzled because their fame gives them a disproportionate role in politics even though their public policy credentials aren’t much more impressive than yours or mine.
We got another example a week or so ago when there were no complaints from the left when former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he will spend $50 million in a campaign against the National Rifle Association on gun control.
"We've got to make them afraid of us," he declared. Fear might not be the most accurate term here. He has certainly gotten their attention – just as he got the attention of everybody in Manhattan when he tried to control the size of the soft drinks they could buy. But, it is sort of an amusing image to think of a little guy waving his oversized wallet facing off against millions of Americans with firearms.
The point is that Bloomberg obviously is not against big money in politics – he even had the stunning arrogance to declare that his campaign meant that, “if there is a God,” he had “earned my place in heaven.” Try to imagine the meltdown on the left if the Kochs had expressed such pathetic hubris.
My liberal friends explain all this by saying that, while they hate the rules as they are, they have to play by them in order to defeat the dark side. That, they say, is why President Obama had to break his pledge to limit his campaign spending to public financing in his first run for office. If he had stuck to his alleged moral principles, he might not have won.
The “proof” that big money has taken over politics, they say, is in how much campaign spending has increased in every election cycle. Indeed, it has increased significantly. According to OpenSecrets.org, a website sponsored by the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on both the congressional and presidential elections more than doubled in 12 years, from a little over $3 billion in 2000 to nearly $6.3 billion in 2012, although inflation in the 40 percent range for the same period makes the jump less dramatic.
Does that qualify as big money, in a nation of 300 million people, 435 congressional districts and 100 senate races?
I guess it does if you think about $21 per person is far too much to spend to persuade people about the merits of your candidate or a political philosophy. But it seems pretty marginal to me, especially given the political literacy of the populace, made famous by segments like former Tonight Show host Jay Leno’s on-the-street segment called Jaywalking, in which it was rare to find anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of their government or who was running it. It seems marginal to me in light of many people spending that or more on coffee in a week.
And it seems especially marginal given what Americans spend on other things that are, presumably, far less significant than being informed about who is going to lead the country or represent our little corner of it in Congress.
The American Pet Products Association reports that Americans spent $55.7 billion last year on pets. That, Time magazine drily noted, was more than the GDP of Luxembourg. And you don’t need a calculator to know that it is about nine times the amount spent on federal elections in 2012.
The list goes on: We reportedly spend vastly more than that – $96 billion – on beer in a single year; $25.4 billion on professional sports, $16 billion on chocolate; $11 billion on coffee; $10 billion on romance novels and a cool $2 billion just on chewing gum.
By those measures, $6.3 billion starts to look a bit paltry.
Yes, it’s true that the quality of the information matters – it doesn’t illuminate anything to assert that one side has declared a “war on women,” or that “the rich aren’t paying their fair share,” without objective information to back it up. It’s true that the source of the information matters – if advertising is funded by wealthy people or well-funded interest groups like unions, voters ought to know that.
But the amount of money in politics is not, relatively speaking, big. We could benefit from a lot more investment in educating the public about how candidates for office will handle the issues that confront us.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.