Money is Power—For Now

Went to a reception for Joe Sestak the other night. He’s not “running” for the Senate yet, but he’s “exploring” it seriously. And if you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel, you know exploration costs money, what with all the sled dogs and dried seal meat—and that’s just to get to the North Pole, which is much cheaper and easier than getting to Washington, DC, even from here in Pennsylvania.

Now, I don’t begrudge Joe my contributions, because I’d like his explorations to succeed (and I’ve hosted several events for Joe to prove it) and it does take a lot of money. Joe has $ 1 Million at his disposal but Pat Toomey, the evil Grinch who recently took over the North Pole (because Santa Claus gave away too many food presents to unworthy hungry people) has $3 million. Neither Joe nor the Grinch (quite correctly) thinks he has enough. Why on earth does it take so much?

It’s certainly not sled dogs and seal meat (interns and pizza). Nope, it’s all needed for TV advertising. After all, how would we know who was an evil, Muslim, socialist minion of Hitler if his opponent didn’t tell us that on TV—over and over and over? However, much more important than scurrilous information is the positive feedback loop of the money/TV connection. The more money candidates raise, the more seriously they are taken by their national party (which won’t back anyone who can’t generate a whopping nest egg on their own), by the pundits, by their potential opponents (what eager-beaver Republican would want to challenge Toomey knowing he’s starting $3 Million or more in the hole?) and by potential donors (nobody wants to put money into a losing cause). Thus the positive feedback loop. Candidates who have money are the most likely to get money, which then enables them to get even more money.

This isn’t anything new, and I’ve already written about it (Voting with Dollars). But there’s another way money in politics has affected democracy that I haven’t mentioned. Money has so obviously become the key to political success (as opposed to, say, voting) that the huge number of eligible voters without the spare cash to funnel to people who represent their hopes and dreams have become convinced that the game is rigged against them—so why bother. Why bother volunteering, why bother talking politics with friends and neighbors, why bother…VOTING.

And they don’t. This is the real triumph, and evil, of money in politics. The top few percent have used huge media cash infusions to convince the lower 75% that they are powerless*, EVEN THOUGH IN A SINGLE ELECTION THEY COULD THROW THE BUMS OUT AND VOTE IN CANDIDATES WHO ACTUALLY REPRESENT THEM. This reminds me of the pictures you see of hundreds of prisoners of war being escorted by a mere handful of armed guards. The prisoners could overwhelm their captors at any minute—but they’ve been convinced that they are powerless…and so they are.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Let’s modify the old slogan: “Workers of the world VOTE, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Don’t let a relatively few wealthy guardians of privilege and the status quo continue to flood themselves and their cronies with contracts, tax breaks and deregulation, things that are against the interests of almost everyone who lives here (and on the earth) yet continue to be done because the beneficiaries have convinced us that we can’t stop them. Well we can, if we only will.

*Turnouts are typically < 50% for off-year Congressional elections, and often in single digits for state and local primaries—where the $$-driven decisions are baked in (

Voting With Dollars

Well, John Huntsman has jumped out of the clown car for the last time, finally announcing he is leaving the GOP race to be not-Obama (see today’s NYT article). I would think the Republican Party should be pretty concerned to have lost the only relatively rational and human-appearing being in the race and to be stuck with the current disturbing mix of phony, greedy, ignorant buffoons (I leave out demonically possessed, as Michelle Bachmann has already given up).

So why did Huntsman leave? Obviously, it had to do with his performance in the polls (face it—coming in behind Stephen Colbert in SC is not a good sign). But let’s think about this. Why should these “polls” matter one whit? After all, elections are the real polls, and we’ve had only 2 of 50 so far (or maybe only 1 ½, as the Iowa caucuses aren’t even real elections)—that’s 4% of the states and, given their relatively low population, likely even less than 4% of Republican voters.

Oh, Rob, you just don’t understand. It’s all about the money (hmmm, where have we heard that before?). Poor performance in polls (and in a few trial-run elections) mean that a candidate isn’t “strong” and thus probably wont win. And thus people with lots of money wont donate any of that money to the candidate. Leaving aside the negative feedback nature of this system (which means that small perturbations of an initial state amplify themselves, usually to destruction) that creates self-fulfilling prophecies, what does this really mean for “democracy?”

Well, it means this: We actually have 2 separate, parallel elections. The first election uses not votes, cast one per customer, but dollars, cast many per customer (but only from customers who have lots). Now of course the dollar election doesn’t occur on just one day, or even 50 separate days. The dollar election is every day, and the dollar tallies are reported religiously by the media. As candidates rise in dollars, they spend them on ads. The ads help them rise in the polls. And the polls help them get more dollar votes. This is now a positive feedback amplification—the winners of the dollar vote become strong, and the losers drop out of the race. Hence Huntsman. Does anyone think Huntsman (or other departed candidates with a national following) would’ve dropped out if each of the candidates had the same sized pool of funds? Of course not. They would’ve stayed in and let the real vote (not the dollar vote) play out and we could all see who the most voters in the whole country wanted.

But that doesn’t happen. Because the dollar vote has had its destructive effects long before most people votes take place, we-the-people are left to choose only between the winners of the dollar vote. Is this so bad (rhetorical question; if I have to explain this to you there’s no hope)? Yes,Columbia, it is. Reason being that it’s not “one person, one vote.” Some people (now including corporate people, thanks be to SCOTUS) are able to cast lots and lots of dollar votes. But a great many people who can cast their single person vote just fine can’t afford to cast any (or very many) dollar votes. This means that the winners of all national and state-level elections have already been pre-elected by the dollar vote. Whomever the people voters choose, of whichever party, has already been elected by dollars, dollars that come from a tiny subset of the electorate. And this subset has its own agenda, which is not shared with the rest.

So why do we want moneyed people and corporations to have this outlandish, outsized, outrageous control of our electoral process? Well, people (and corporations) need to be free to do what they want with their money. After all, that’s democracy.