Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive a phone call, email or a letter from at least one candidate for public office. Nearly always the purpose of the call or letter is to ask for a donation to aid in his or her election to office. With the presidential election less than a year away, I expect these calls, letters and emails will increase in number.
The people who keep tract of these things maintain that the 2008 election was the most expensive vote in history. According to a recent article in “Mother Jones,” candidates, political parties, political action groups and individuals doled out more than $5.3 billion in campaign costs for the 2008 election. (Note: $5.3 billion in $20 bills would weigh more than 2600 tons.) The same people who keep track of these things are guessing that the 2012 presidential election will be even more costly as a result of the Supreme Court ruling that campaign donations by corporations must be treated the same as donations by people and cannot be restricted. The rules say that even individuals are restricted in the total number of dollars they can contribute to any one candidate or political party. Those donations also have to be disclosed by the party or candidate. Campaign finance rules, however, do not apply to organizations which are not directly connected to a candidate, but choose to support his or her campaign. These “non-profits” or political action committees (PACs) or super-PACS can, and do, get unlimited contributions with which to try to influence elections. These donations do not have to be made public.
It is even hard to tell the difference between a corporation-funded super-PAC and a grassroots organization. Many of these groups have noble-sounding names like the “Winning Our Future” organization. This super-PAC’s goal is the election of Newt Gingrich. The nation’s eighth richest person, Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino mogul donated more than $5 million to the organization which has used the money to launch blistering attacks on Gingrich’s foremost opponent in the Republican primary, Mitt Romney. Adelson’s donation may be the largest so far for this election, but it is not the only gift of more than a million to a candidate. It is estimated that this year’s election will be even more costly than the last. Considering Adelson’s contribution was to further Mr. Gingrich’s campaign in the Republican caucus elections, what will he and others be willing to dole out to see that their candidate wins the final race?
I might be persuaded to send a few dollars to candidates I would like to see elected. My contribution by itself would not be the one that determined any election, although I am more likely to make a donation to a local or statewide candidate where my small contribution might make a difference.
Cynicism is hard to avoid for those of us with $5 to give to the candidates we support. Compared to the influence which can be wielded by the super rich one percent of people or multinational corporations masquerading as people, our monetary influence is miniscule even if all of us throw our few dollars in the same hat. I can’t imagine finding a million small donors who could agree to send $5 to any one candidate without the fundraising and accounting costs being higher than the donations.
A minority of voters control the vast sums of money that pays for elections, but the elections are won by influencing the majority of voters and convincing the rest of us that one candidate or another is the best one. Candidates’ personal values, opinions and positions on issues we all care about are spun, given new interpretations, bent, twisted, reformed and adjusted as campaigns progress. The stories that fill the evening news, the morning paper and our computer screens change weekly. The issue we all thought was the deal maker last week is old news as the debate moves on to new fields. It is not only hard to know what a candidate or a party stands for, it is difficult to remember what our own position is. Sixty-second sound bites have influence on what we think we know. Advertising works. News is not necessarily really news but may be a press release directly from a candidate’s media consultants. The wealthy can throw money at an election, but the rest of us have more votes.
Unless our cynicism leads us to completely ignore elections and to adopt an attitude that none of this matters, a skeptical attitude might be a good thing, If we ignore advertisements, dig deeper than the evening news to understand the issues, ask questions and think about the consequences of what is being proposed for the country as a whole, money has a harder time swaying our opinion. Ask, “Who paid for this information, this sound bite, this press release?” Don’t allow your vote to be bought by the highest bidder.
The truth is hard to find. Things would be so much simpler if our televisions, iPads, phones and laptops had a “TruthFinder App,” a little digital box that blinked when candidates told the truth.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains