The phrase “money talks” couldn’t mean more than it does now in 2014. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision was a watershed moment for big money politics. Citizens with inordinate amounts of wealth were already spending piles of money before Citizens United. A sizable amount of literature already exists on the inner workings of these political elite – investigative journalists have written about the Koch Brothers and several other millionaire/billionaire (let’s face it, it’s just not that hard to be a millionaire these days) donors on both sides of the political spectrum. I am not an investigative journalist, nor do I have the time to deeply research this shadowy monetary infrastructure. I simply want to bring attention to the importance of money in politics.
In an age where practically everyone has a smartphone, there is really no excuse for being uninformed. We can Google the location of Benghazi, find a nice Tinder date, and learn about the Farm Bill – all from our phones. And for those that don’t have phones, Internet access and public computers are widely available. How can we not make self-determined decisions about how we should vote or how we should feel? Money is talking because, well… citizens aren’t.
Money buys political advertisements, TV time, fancy cocktail hours, phone calls, and political analysis. All for We The People. Millions are spent on election after election (let’s not even think about what we could do with the gross amount we spend on our campaigns. I get queasy) just to get us to show up and vote for one person or another. They don’t need all of us. They don’t even need half of us. They just need enough people to care about voting. Which is often a low number, considering the high percentage of people angry with Congress and the White House. And who says our vote is worthless? Tell that to Mr. Cantor. He learned, as we all did, what people can do when they actually rally behind something. There are political lessons to be learned, but more importantly, there are civics lessons to be learned.
A Tower of Babel
Everyone on both sides talk about how the government is bad or could do better. Evil. Wasteful. Naughty. Untrustworthy. Terrible. However, when it comes voting time, only half of those people show up. Now, I understand there are sizable barriers to people learning about political issues. But what we need to remember is that wealthy conservatives and liberals pump millions into dollars just to shape our opinions. If they can buy public opinion, they can buy the public. They already have, in a sense. Money, as stated before, is talking louder than the people.
There are very few barriers that keep citizens from putting Congress’ feet to the fire. Something that has always amazed me is that we tell our kids that they can do whatever they want to do, but as adults we stand by and take the abuses of government and do nothing. Why can’t we hold Congress accountable? Perhaps the cacophony of “left versus right.” Misguided facts and blame-games create a political Tower of Babel. Everyone is talking, but nobody is truly understanding each other and getting things done.
Note that it’s not just a bipartisan struggle, but it’s a make-Congress-stand-up-to-lobbying issue and a Congress-isn’t-representing-the-peoples’-interests-within-the-party issue. This is where advertisements come in. They’re simple and they stretch the truth. If people don’t read into issues, their opinions are easily polarized. When millionaires can monopolize advertising and control what people see, when they see it, and how people see it… that adds up to be what Taylor Swift would signify as trouble walking in (to politics). Money gets politicians to say what the contributors want by coercing officials and bending the truth to the contributor’s favor. Big spenders eat up controversy, especially when they’re on the winning side of it. Pay attention to how many ads mudsling or play off of controversial events (like Benghazi, Bergdahl, etc.) this fall.
Of course, we need to know who our candidates are. That’s why we have and need advertisements. But money changes the playing field for those that have more of it.
Building the Tower
The Citizens United decision augmented the presence of big money in politics, but where did it begin? The Koch Brothers were one of the first in the game. Charles Koch entered the political arena by creating the CATO Institute and funding several other libertarian groups starting in the 1970s. The Koch Brothers (a story that dips into much further detail starting from Moody’s Yahoo article where I got this info from) were the most famous, but who is to say they were the actually the first? Anyways, fast forward to 2012 – The Koch brothers engineered what the previously mentioned Yahoo article called a “fundraising goliath” that raised $400 million against Democrats in the 2012 election.
Let’s not be fooled though, there are wealthy liberals funding Democrats in the same way that wealthy conservatives fund Republicans. What about the common citizen? Lessig’s 2011 Op-Ed in the New York Times notes that less than one percent of Americans give more than $200 in a presidential campaign. If only one percent of Americans are giving more than $200 in a presidential campaign, how the heck did President Obama and Mr. Romney raise the obscene amount of money they did in the 2012 campaign?
Super PACs, or Super Political Action Committees, may shed a strong light on the issues at hand. 593 Super PACs currently exist, as ABC News’ Krieg reports in a fairly handy article explaining what a Super PAC is. What’s unique about Super PACs is that they can accept unlimited political contributions. Priorities USA, the liberal Super PAC that supported Pres. Obama, spent a staggering 65+ million dollars in the 2012 election against Mr. Romney and Republicans. Likewise, Restore Our Future, the conservative PAC supporting Mr. Romney spent a whopping 142 million dollars against Pres. Obama and other Democrats. If only one percent of ALL Americans give more than $200 in a presidential election, there is a very grave discrepancy between the influence of the average American and the very, very rich ones.
Stepping Away From the Shadow
The picture I’m trying to paint, eerily enough, is extremely annotated and only scratches the surface of an intricate and powerful political spending infrastructure that both political parties wield. Now, I’m not foolish, this isn’t a “rage against the machine” type of post. I know that many readers will keep living the lives they did yesterday, as will I. However, this is an issue that we need to begin talking about way more.
With midterm elections around the corner and a presidential election that will juggle the potentially perilous issues of Iraq and Syria, a weak recovery, immigration, and so much more – we, as citizens, must choose wisely. Before the monstrous tower of political Babel can be knocked over, we have to step outside of the shadows of the tower. We should feel really special: millions are spent on getting us, as citizens, to vote. How flattering! But we also are left in the dark, with the super wealthy monopolizing the flashlights. Until next time, I’ll leave you with The Notorious B.I.G. song “Mo Money, Mo Problems”.
Lester is a International Security Studies Senior at the University of Oklahoma.