David Brooks is a sensible conservative; he writes for the New York Times, which means he gets written off as some sort of centrist by those on the Far Right, but I appreciate the way he approaches the complex issues of our time. Brooks ponders the philosophical meaning of our problems, and strives for well thought analysis instead of trite ideological rants. I always enjoy his columns, even those I disagree with. Today, he argued that criticism of campaign spending is overblown, because money just doesn’t influence elections as much as people assume.
First of all, Brooks points out that based on a few studies, Democrats in competitive races are outspending Republicans. He then examines polling showing Republican advantages in many races, and concludes that the money spent had no effect. Brooks argues that independent group spending is only a 10th of political party spending, and that there is no way to prove that independent spending is more effective than party spending. Finally, he argues that people do not respond to the din of political advertising. Speaking about the Colorado Senate contest between Michael Bennett and Ken Buck, where there have been 5,358 pro-democratic ads and 4,928 pro-Republican ads, Brooks writes that “This isn’t persuasive; it’s mind-numbing. No wonder voters tune it all out. Amid this onslaught, there is no way a slightly richer ad campaign is going to make much difference.”
On his last point, Brooks is both right and wrong. On one hand, people do not respond to marketing like they used to, political marketing included. With the spread of smartphones, even our formerly quiet parks are now forums for messaging. We have ready access to e-mail and other media, at every moment. We are saturated. On the other hand, because of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, corporations can again open the spigot of campaign spending.
The Center for Responsive Politics, the same group that Brooks quotes, reports that as a result of the Citizens United case, there is record spending by independent groups in this Midterm Election. Unprecedented spending, and despite the Supreme Court insisting that corporations must disclose their political spending, this does not mean that the ad must make that support clear. Instead, innocent sounding fronts called Citizens for a Better America or Minnesota Forward collect the corporate cash and hide its source from the American public. Of course, you hear similar complaints from Republicans over Union spending. Citizens United only served to make the political waters murkier, rather than more transparent. Brooks views the effect of this new spending as insignificant:
“In the end, however, money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties. It probably helps in local legislative races where name recognition is low. It probably helps challengers get established. But these days, federal races are oversaturated. Every federal candidate in a close race has plenty of money and the marginal utility of each new dollar is zero. In this day and age, money is almost never the difference between victory and defeat. It’s just the primitive mythology of the political class.”
Brooks is naive here. People should know where the money comes from. Voters should know what special interests the candidates are supported by, and which candidates their businesses support. Voters should be able to use that information to decide whether they want to continue to support that business. Voters should know when businesses write legislation that is blindly adopted by candidates the businesses supported in previous elections. Voters should understand the complexity behind the significant problems we face.
There is one way to level the playing field: federal financing of election spending. That levels the playing field and leaves the ideas and promises of the respective political parties as the only currency. Of course, voter education will be a tough nut to crack. The political system aims for the lowest common denominator; voters are conditioned to listen on that level. We should celebrate citizen involvement in elections, in the day to day grind of political life. Citizens should participate in their Democracy, not only during exciting elections, but every day. It can start at the community level, with citizens more actively engaged in the decisions their elected representatives make on their behalf. In the end, it comes down to participation and engagement.