By Frank Blechman
If it were not so serious, we could laugh about it. As we approach the Republican nominating convention this week, Republican candidates for governor here in Virginia have recently accused each other of sponsoring negative campaign ads through shadowy “dark money” from unknown groups outside of the state. They decry the lies, the distortions, the character assassinations. They imply–and sometimes directly say–that money corrupts. Oh, the horror.
It would be funny because many of those same folks applauded shadowy outside negative campaign ads aimed against Democrats, and strongly defended legal loopholes that allowed these groups to avoid disclosing their funders.
It is serious because anonymous negative ads do interfere with voters’ ability to make well-informed decisions about candidates for important public offices. We can debate if money always corrupts, but there is no argument that it always distorts the public conversation.
Yet every time this debate surfaces, pundits and critics say that regulating or limiting political contributions is terribly complicated, raising questions of free speech and the bias in fact-checking.
To help us all understand this issue, I convened a conversation last month among four people (whose identities are disguised and whose names are changed to pseudonyms to protect their identities), all of whom are savvy in the ways of the world. I asked each to comment on the current controversies about money, politics, and corruption.
Tony from Jersey: Ha! It’s all just tawk. The real value of money in politics is that it can buy silence. Everybody has somebody who doesn’t like him (or her) and wants to be a big shot by flapping their mouth. But, with a little persuasion, they can keep it to themselves.
Nashville Slim: Can’t argue with that, Tony. But I have to say, I think money buys confidence. When I have a big roll in my pocket, I know that I can get what I need; people, tools, whatever. I know that I’m not going to be caught with my pants down, so to speak. Whatever happens, I can deal with it.
Frank Fairfax: Gentlemen. Here in Virginia we don’t ever talk about politics that way. We prefer to go by the honor system. We say that candidates can take any money they want, but that it has to be reported and published so the voters can make an informed choice, knowing where campaign support is coming from. We recognize that Virginia is a big diverse state and it costs something, especially for statewide candidates, to get around. We just want good clean elections.
Eddie from Vienna: We know the system today is badly flawed, and can list many ways it is. But it’s like getting rid of organized crime: what are you going to replace it with that will still satisfy the needs of the people? Given our system, sustained for so long in so many different places, to the same effect, who are we to change it on a whim? And who says any replacement system won’t fall to the same desires and challenges? Did legalized lotteries and OTB actually improve anything? People still bet more than they can afford to lose, and schools still run out of funding.
You can’t stop somebody who wants to mess around with an election from doing it.
Slim: Very thoughtful sir. Too deep for me. The simple thing here is that you can’t stop somebody who wants to mess around with an election from doing it. I know that. You know that. I don’t have to be Vladimir Putin to buy an ad or put out a rumor that says you’re a skunk, in my opinion.
Tony: You make a good point there. Any game can be rigged. But take it from me, you can make it harder to rig a game, and you make it worse to get caught. Right now, in the political game, all the odds are in favor of the rigger.
Eddie: As my Logic Master would say, that argument has rigger!
Frank: So. Transparency is good as a principle, but it is not enough by itself. We need to strengthen state laws to make out-of-state PACs and “independent expenditures” file disclosures with the State Election Department showing who is doing these things and where the money is coming from. And we should create a strong an investigative authority with the power to investigate and prosecute those who don’t comply. We need to encourage more fact checking, particularly by independent media. We need broad voter education about why honest and full disclosures benefit all of us.
Ask why, if the relationship is okay to have, they would ever want to hide it?
Eddie: If voters made laws, perhaps. What we really need is repugnance, loud hissing. We need voters who will turn wrinkled noses up, announce loudly “I think something stinks. Did you step in something?” and then vote against unlovelies funded by the invisibles. (Really: against even lovelies funded by invisibles.) Ask why, if the relationship is okay to have, they would ever want to hide it? I’d like to tell you about my cousin Joey from Joisey, a great guy! He practically raised me! But he’s hoping for a pardon and I don’t want to upset things.
Frank: Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.
I hope that this panel discussion is just the beginning of this conversation. I hope that in the weeks and months ahead, this blog will further explore how money and promises of other favors distort our public decision-making processes.