Thursday, April 3, 2014

Getting Money Out of Politics

In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its opinion first stated in Citizens United v. FEC that campaign contributions are speech, and protected under the First Amendment. People call this "buying elections." Bernie Sanders called it "buying the political process."

I think we need to untangle this. I don't like the quid pro quo relationship established when politicians are allowed to accept money; that's bribery. That's purchasing policy. As long as that's allowed to continue, it doesn't matter who gets elected, so long as they have a price that some special interest will pay. Everyone who's elected will be for sale, and that's a problem.

Of course, doing that overtly IS illegal, so they get around it by taking advantage of the loophole that says you can make campaign donations. It's still bribery. It's still purchasing policy.

What bothers me in the discussion surrounding this is the oft-repeated claim that campaign contributors are "buying elections." And a lot of people--probably a lot of you reading this--believe it.

Can I point out the elephant in the room here? Commercials are not purchases. I've seen ads for LOTS of candidates I never voted for. There have been times that I was considering a candidate until I saw one of their ads, and it turned me against them. NEVER have I been persuaded to cast a vote for somebody based on how much they spend on commercials.

I'm not saying advertising doesn't influence people's opinions. Look at Coke and Pepsi. They're both fizzy brown sugar water and they cost about the same. They don't taste identical, but which one is better is entirely a matter of personal preference. There is no selling point for one over the other. It's not like one is more nutritious, or is manufactured in a more ecologically or socially responsible way. The only distinguishing factor is your own opinion about which one you like more. In that case, commercials that attempt to manipulate your emotional associations with the product are effective. If they can plant in your brain, even subconsciously, messages like, "All the cool people drink Coke, only dweebs and losers drink that lame other brand," then they can affect your behavior when you go to make a selection.

In the case of judges, specifically, I can see that working. A judge isn't supposed to have an agenda beyond interpreting the law correctly. They're not supposed to be pushing a political ideology in the courtroom. So what we're presented are these people in black robes who are supposed to be impartial and knowledgeable, but otherwise indistinct. The cola branding works in this case. Maybe the commercials make you think of one candidate as being more folksy and likeable, or tougher on crime, or more compassionate, or whatever it is that speaks to you.

But beyond that, when we get into the executive and legislative branches, it's a whole other ballgame. It's Coke vs. Orange Crush. Now, maybe you're in the mood for milk, or wine, or spring water, and you don't see a lot of difference between them because they're not speaking to your concerns. But the ways they distinguish themselves from each other are more tangible, less subjective.

Say the issue they're talking about is abortion. Jones says he wants to outlaw it. Smith says she wants it to be legal. If you think abortion should be illegal, no amount of money Smith spends to drive home her message that it should be legal is going to change your mind. To the contrary, each dollar she throws at the issue is just going to further entrench you in your decision to vote against her. And if you agree with her position, she's reached the point of diminishing returns as soon as she's made you aware of her position. You're not going to vote for her five more times if she spends five times as much money on ads.

And if you don't care about abortion one way or the other, all that noise is going to go in one ear and out the other. The more of it there is, the more bothersome it will become, and the more likely the ads are going to have the effect of making you irritable and causing you to associate that feeling with the candidates.

Republicans get this. They're masters at it. They have to be--they represent the interests of the fewest number of people, but generally have more money to throw at advertising. So how do they work around this dilemma? They don't push their issues. You have never once seen an ad by a Republican candidate saying, "Let's give away your hard-earned money to big businesses that already have billions of dollars in profits, and then let's take food away from starving children to give those big businesses even more." They'd never win that way. Instead, they do two things: 1) they sidestep the issues altogether and try cola branding to appeal to apathetic and low-information voters ("I'm the patriotic candidate"), and 2) they obfuscate issues to trick people into voting against their interests.

The first technique doesn't work on people who have an opinion, and the latter doesn't work on people who understand the issues.

That first one is just cola branding, and while it does have a measurable effect, its power is not limitless. While more people prefer Pepsi in blind taste tests, more people buy Coke. But if Coke quit running all TV, radio, and print ads for two weeks, and Pepsi doubled spending on theirs, you wouldn't see all those Coke drinkers abandon Coke and start buying Pepsi. It doesn't work that way. Likewise, there are only so many votes a candidate can win with cola branding commercials--images of the candidate fishing, hanging out with grandchildren, shaking hands with disabled veterans, etc. You hit a point of diminishing returns pretty quickly on that. Once you spend enough to win over the kind of voters who can be won over that way, you don't gain anything by spending more on the same kind of ad.

The second kind works, but only if there's no counter-message at all. We saw that in Ohio over the creation of a humane livestock care standards board. The point was to create a board to rule over issues of humane livestock care instead of letting the voters decide such matters for themselves. For example, instead of the general electorate voting to ban the caging of laying hens, the governor would appoint a board (mostly consisting of industry professionals), and that board would decide whether it would be legal to put hens in cages. Not creating the board would have given voters more power. Creating the board took the power out of voters' hands and gave it to the very people who were being regulated. In the election where this was decided, the factory farms and their organizations funded a massive campaign, even drawing in contributions from out of state, to send the message that if you care about animals, you should vote for the creation of the board--that is, vote to allow the industry to do whatever it wants to animals. They made it sound like a vote for the board was a vote for humane treatment of animals, when the opposite was the case.

If the opposition had put out one ad countering that message, it would have created confusion, and that confusion would have started discussions. But there was no opposition in a lot of areas. In all the population centers across the state, the only message people got was, "If you care about animals, vote YES." In the rural areas, the only message people got was, "If you don't want animal rights organizations telling you how to run your farm, vote YES." Sustainable, humane farmers were mostly telling folks at the farmers markets to vote NO, but there was no money to spread that message, so no ads.

But that was over an issue, not a candidate. Both parties had been bought in that case. Races between candidates are rarely so one-sided. So if Jones, who wants to penalize polluters, says "Vote for me if you care about clean air," and Smith, who wants to allow pollution, also says, "Vote for me if you care about clean air," that's not going to sway voters one way or the other. The tactic doesn't work when there's opposition.

A lot of people say the answer is to get private money out of politics by requiring campaigns to be publicly financed. That alone doesn't fix it. If you prevent private entities from donating to a candidate, they'll just run their own ads. A private entity can run a political ad as long as they're transparent about who's funding it. "Hi, this is Bob from Bob's Used Cars. We care about saving you money, and that means tax money, too. I'm voting for Jones to lower our taxes, and I hope you will, too." Instead of sending Jones a check, Bob just sends him a letter of support informing him that spent X number of dollars on and ad encouraging people to vote for Jones. It creates the same quid pro quo relationship as a campaign contribution. It just cuts out the middle man. We still have the corruption, and it has little impact on the results of the election.

What I think would help keep the elections fair would be if, when people went to vote, they were briefed on the candidates' platforms. On issues and tax levies, the text is available to read at the polls. I think we should allow for something similar with candidates. Each candidate could summarize their positions and ambitions in a couple hundred words or so. There'd be no framing, as when the League of Women Voters selects questions to ask. It would basically be a free text ad each candidate gets to run at the polls. No images, all the same font. Candidates who may not have had enough money to campaign in every area would have just as much chance to reach voters as candidates who had plastered the whole state with billboards for the past year. Candidates who base their campaigns on misinformation would have their allegations challenged. It would really level the playing field, and it would do it when it counts most: the moment before the voter casts his vote. With voters getting this kind of information right there at the polls, and with it not costing the candidate anything, I think we could drastically diminish the power that money has in deciding who gets elected.

To look at the effect this would have, let's return to our race between Jones and Smith. Bob's Used Autos alienated a lot of Smith supporters by running the pro-Jones ad. If anyone other than Jones wins, Bob screwed himself. (For that matter, even if Jones wins, if Bob's gains under the Jones administration aren't greater than his losses from alienating Smith supporters, Bob still loses.) Jones ran an ad saying if you care about freedom, vote for him. Smith said if you care about freedom of choice, vote for her. Then our voter gets to the polls and finds out three other people he'd never heard of are running. He gets to read an outline of each candidate's platform, and decides he likes Brown the best. All Smith's, Jones', and Bob's money has been wasted. Brown wins. Who owns him? Nobody. And how can anyone legally corrupt him now that he's in office? By donating money to his campaign? He won without a dime last time, and having money did his competitors no good. There's no motivation to accept the money, and a good deal of motivation to refuse it, if he wants to present a clean image.