October 24, 2010
At a campaign rally the other day, President Barack Obama decried those who say "you can't overcome the cynicism of politics; no, you can't overcome the special interests; no, you can't overcome the big money; no, you can't overcome the negative ads."
The president emphatically disagrees. But here's the odd thing: The only people you hear taking that view are in the White House.
It's been their lament since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that corporations have a constitutional right to spend money communicating their views about candidates running for office. "I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest," Obama declared. All this spending, said presidential adviser David Axelrod, "is a threat to our democracy."
Lately, they are particularly alarmed that foreign money may be going to conservative groups that run anti-Democratic ads. Axelrod thinks it is vital for the names of such donors to be disclosed. CBS' Bob Schieffer asked, "Do you have any evidence that it's anything other than peanuts?" Axelrod replied, in a heroic display of chutzpah, "Well, do you have any evidence that it's not, Bob?" Guilty until proven innocent: a new concept.
But the president is right in believing that if people reject the agenda of the corporations that are spending money in this election, they can vote against it — and win. Americans are about as likely to vote for every candidate a corporation favors as they are to buy every product a corporation advertises.
It's not as though Mammoth Amalgamated Corp. or China World Takeover Inc. is going out and paying citizens to cast Republican ballots. It's not even as though corporations, foreign or domestic, are trying to buy off politicians with direct campaign contributions — which remain illegal.
All they can do is finance broadcast spots or newspaper ads with messages intended to sway voters. As more than half of all political candidates discover every election year, such efforts often fail. Unless the ads make a case that is persuasive and believable to a majority of voters, they are wasted.
Most corporate executives seem to understand as much and choose not to bother. When the Supreme Court decision came down, critics predicted a tidal wave of corporate spending on elections. What they overlooked is that in about half the states, including Illinois, such outlays were already allowed, without that dire consequence.
All the evidence indicates that corporate electioneering makes no difference in election outcomes or legislation. John Coleman, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, examined the period 2000-2008 and found that states permitting such spending were no more likely to have Republican legislatures, business-friendly regulatory policies or low business costs.
What can we conclude from this experience? Either businesses don't spend enough money to get their way or haven't found ways to sell their message. In any case, it's hard to see how their spending can be "devastating to the public interest" when its effects are all but undetectable.
The main reason for its futility is that there are lots of voices out there trying to influence how Americans vote. This year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside groups (not counting party committees) have spent about $225 million on electioneering — which comes to a grand total of $1 for every American of voting age.
That sum is less than all the contenders have laid out so far in a single race – for governor of California. In 2008, candidates for the U.S. Senate and House raised a total of $1.4 billion, and that number will undoubtedly be higher this year. In addition, there are countless TV commentators, editorial writers, radio talk-show hosts and bloggers weighing in on these races.
In the end, though, none of them gets to decide the winners. It's the voters who hold the ultimate power.
That's why comprehensive disclosure of who's contributing to independent groups is less than crucial. The lack of such information doesn't keep voters from evaluating each ad in light of the other information they have on the subject. If you hear someone on the radio say that 2 + 2 = 5, you don't need to know who bought the spot to decide whether to believe it.
The administration thinks that Americans cannot possibly sort out truth and error in a wide-open clash of ideas. But all the evidence confirms: Yes, we can.
Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman
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