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Bread for Circuses

The Road to Resilience

I get about a hundred emails every day.  I screen them for communications from people I know, but I end up deleting about 95 percent of them.  I have learned to screen quickly, so I don’t waste half my morning doing it.  I’ve considered unsubscribing to them, but there are so many, it would take a day or more to do it.  Almost all of the ones I delete are asking for money.  Most of those are from political campaigns with the remainder from organizations that I agree with.  A large part of this assault is just due to the ease and economy of communicating via email.  As for the political campaign requests, I think a lot of it is due to the Bernie Sanders’ miraculous success matching the big corporate contributors with millions of small donations.  Bernie supporters like me were thrilled that we could accomplish this, but I, at least, didn’t foresee the logical consequences.  

Now I get requests from practically every Democrat running for Congress, the Senate, or Governor everywhere in the country.  Each one is hoping for a Bernie miracle—that they might be the candidate who captures the national interest and hauls in millions.  As I automatically delete each of these, I’ve been pondering the real cause for this waste of time:  keeping campaigns expensive always plays to those with the most money.  Although we have proven that we can match the big boys with lots of small donations, it is still cheaper and easier for candidates to get the money from big donors.  

The fact that elections are so expensive makes fundraising a more or less constant preoccupation of office holders.  Instead of doing the government business they were elected to do, office holders spend on average 30-50 percent of their time raising money for the next election.  Collecting from big donors makes this much easier and faster, although there is always a quid pro quo, regardless of how much they claim that there isn’t.  Keeping elections expensive ensures that the interests of wealthy donors are front and center.

So why are campaigns so expensive?  In my mind, the main reasons are the lack of spending limits, the length of campaigns, and the cost of media.

In Britain, political parties can spend only 30 million dollars and only within the year before the election.  We have congressional candidates that spend more than that.

In Canada, the longest campaign in their history was ten weeks!  Our national campaigns now run two years.  Our current president prefers campaigning to actually governing, so we now have the precedent for the four-year campaign.  (I can’t decide whether we’re better off with him campaigning or trying to run the government.)  Time is money, and I’m sure the wealthy interests couldn’t be happier.

In most European democracies, paid campaign ads are forbidden!  When you realize that expensive ads account for most of the campaign spending and that the media outlets that collect that money are owned by the same wealthy interests, you can see that investing in a candidate both buys an elected official and creates profit.  Theoretically, the government grants public wave spectra to the media in exchange for public interest broadcasts.  In Britain, broadcasters and print media are required to give equal free time or space to competing candidates.  They may choose to give more attention, but it is not to be paid for.  I guess we can’t stop a privately owned paper or broadcaster from tooting their candidate’s horn, but we can at least eliminate that as a cost to the candidate.

The Tillman Act of 1907 banned monetary contributions by corporations.  Although the law was routinely circumvented, it was not officially repealed until the recent Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court.  Chile and Brazil have recently banned corporate contributions.  The result has been a net drop in campaign spending, but not the elimination of all corporate influence.  Until actual contribution limits are enforced, wealthy people can still exert more influence over political outcomes and elected officials.

It is going to be very difficult to limit corporate influence in elections because campaigns are big money makers.  The longer they run, the more expensive ads that are bought, the more influence big money has, the less influence we have.  It also seems that longer campaigns do nothing to better inform us about candidates or the issues.  Just the opposite, they become personality contests and the issues become mirky.  

So I delete those emails.  We need shorter campaigns, free media coverage, a ban on corporate contributions, and overall contribution limits.  We could also use a public that doesn’t fawn on gossip and a media that doesn’t offer it.  Keeping the focus on the money can only lead to more of the circus we have now.