Political Campaigns and Money

I’m going to show off a little of my naiveté here today about how the real world works, and attempt to solve one of the biggest problems the United States political process faces today: Citizens United.

For those unfamiliar, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission is a very famous (and important) case that went before the US Supreme Court in 2010, forbidding the restriction of political expenditures by people or corporations in support of, or against political causes. Basically, it opened the taps for people like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson to pour billions of dollars into a particular campaign, in order to drown out the opposition. What this also accomplished, was to remove ordinary folks, who don’t have name recognition and Super-PACs with millions of dollars, from the ballot.

It should be obvious that this is good for some people, but horrible for the idea of democracy as a whole. When money can prevent any aspect of society from being heard (no matter what their views, as long as they are not inciting violence or hatred), democracy fails, and a democratic society becomes an oligarchy. While Citizens United protected the democracy of free speech in the US, it also destroyed democracy as a whole at the same time. Money buys a louder bullhorn in the US, and that bullhorn now drowns out the voice of the silent majority.

Fighting Citizens United is pointless. The case has been made. Anyone can spend any amount of money to make their voice heard. It is their money. They can do with it what they want. The courts will overturn anything, even a constitutional amendment that prohibits that.

So an alternative must be found. I think (and this is where I demonstrate just how naïve I am), that it’s a pretty simple, two step solution:

1. Give those who want to pour their billions into the campaigns nowhere to spend it.

2. Compel (through legislation) media outlets that broadcast over public airways or use public infrastructure, that they must balance both their coverage and advertising.

How do we do #1? It’s simple, and can be done at a federal level. Pass a law which says all political advertisements on the US airwaves or on US Cable, may cost no more than $1 per minute. At a dollar per minute, any candidate with a reasonable support base could buy the ad time they need on TV, radio or Internet to present their case. By taking away the #1 advantage big money donors have over smaller candidates, the playing field is again leveled.

How do we do #2? That requires a bit more monitoring, probably by the Federal Election Commission. The FEC could collect the raw data from all media outlets on the number of advertisement and reporting-minutes run, and expose that data via a public data stream that any US citizen can access. Failure to balance the coverage (within a certain percent) would be a federal crime, and be subject to huge fines or imprisonment if the commission could prove intent to subvert the law. The key is to allow public watchdog groups access to the information of who paying for the ads. I don’t need to see your entire tax return, but I (as a citizen) do need to see when money is spent in support of a cause.

These two simple (and probably naïve) proposals will, for certain, have a huge impact on the viability of media outlets. They make billions on these ad campaigns. I wouldn’t doubt at all that the billions spent by the big spenders isn’t somehow routed right back into their own pockets, since they likely own the media outlets to begin with. Perhaps with less money at stake, media outlets will decide to air fewer political commercials. That’s fine with me. New media will pick up the slack in getting the news and views out. You can’t buy good word of mouth in social media. Sponsored tweets almost always turn out to be a failing proposition.

But with the field leveled, those who don’t have the big money backers and still seek to serve their country, can. Their ideas will matter once again—more than the size of their campaign war-chest. And we should all be better off for that.

2 Comments on “Political Campaigns and Money

  1. Yep, naive is appropriate. Regarding #1, I don’t think that’s feasible because some media outlets (local TV stations, for instance) rely almost exclusively on campaign advertising to stay profitable– they take a loss on all their other advertising in non-election years (kinda like what retailers claim about their holiday-season sales). Regarding #2, that actually WAS the de facto law– an FCC regulation called “The Fairness Doctrine”– until Reagan’s appointee abolished it. Congress tried to fix that by making it law de jure, but Reagan vetoed their bill. So, there’s another wonderful thing “The Great Communicator” did for us: created one-sided communication.

  2. Hi Steve. I didn’t know about “The Fairness Doctrine”. I immigrated from Canada back in the 1990s and I remember there being a similar law there at the time. Seemed silly at the time, but now that we’ve seen what can happen without one, I think it’s essential if someone is going to call themselves “news media”. Of course I have no idea how that might apply to blogs these days either.

    As far as the practicalities of the $1 ad, a couple of points.

    1. When given the choice between negatively affecting democracy and negatively affecting a little bit of capitalism, I would choose to preserve democracy. I don’t think that’s a sentiment shared by those running Super-PACs.

    2. Perhaps the rest of the year, advertising is far too cheap. I’ve worked for organizations that run out a number of loss leaders in order to try to secure the big deal, and what inevitably happens is that they become completely dependent on the big deal, and when they fail to land them, their business model collapses and people lose jobs anyway.

    I guess I just don’t think anyone should have a profit motive when it involves elections.

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