This is about the point during an election campaign that I talk back compulsively at inanimate objects of the kind that broadcast things that make me doubt my hearing. For example, a snippet on the radio about the amount of money political candidates can drum up within days. Or a chart in a newspaper comparing the money raised and spent.
By Election Day, a radio broadcast said recently, the presidential candidates will have raised more than $1 billion each and spent most of it trying to get elected. The tally by last week was up to $879 million on the Democratic side and $981 million on the Republican side. Further, that $1 billion figure per side most likely will be on the low side, considering that a large number of political interest groups also are slinging money around.
And that’s the money in the presidential race alone.
“That’s obscene,” I tell the radio. “How is it that politicians can raise several million dollars in short order, but a foodbank, a public library or a college, for example, has to beg and scratch for months and years for a decent showing?”
Add to that flood of money, the impressive amounts flowing into scorched-earth Senate and congressional campaigns such as Ohio’s Senate race between incumbent Sherrod Brown and the Republican challenger Josh Mandel (roughly $23.5 million raised and spent altogether so far), and we might be talking the national purchasing power of a dozen or more countries — a Belize or Liberia, for instance — in one election season.
But campaign money is political speech. The Supreme Court has made that much clear. And we do protect the right to political speech, don’t we? And speech is power. And campaigns are all about seeking and using power. Besides, “obscene” is relative. It is in the eye — or ear — of the beholder, so who is to judge what is or is not obscene, under all circumstances, and for everybody?
I tell the radio all this, trying to summon up some something of a cold-eyed, political sophisticate.
But I also tell the faceless voice that money is a proxy. It is a measure of the value we put on all sorts of activities. It stands in for what we would like to do with the money, individually, if we could get it in the amounts that we hear about so casually during election campaigns. You hear $1 billion, and you set up your own table of equivalencies: How many preschools or homeless shelters can you support with $1 billion? The well-to-do are tapped out, you say? Individuals and corporations are so squeezed they are cutting back on charity? Job creators are holding back, anxious about the market? Well, how broke can we be when there is money for a $2 billion presidential campaign?
On that basis, you don’t need someone else to tell you when spending has crossed the threshold for obscene. You know it when you see it — or hear it.
It is relative, yes; and a value judgment, of course. But obscene it is, if you ask me, that it takes one, two or three billion dollars to decide who gets to make the laws or guide the affairs of the country.
“At this rate, who can afford democracy?” I ask the radio. At least, American-style electioneering? In my mind, I hear potential and capable candidates who get a sense of the funds they need to raise to compete for a seat in a state legislature or Congress, let alone the presidency, and decide it is out of reach.
Of equal, if not greater, personal concern is the model of electoral politics such huge amounts present in fledgling democracies elsewhere. The United States is such a compelling force, especially when it exerts influence in young democracies to get their governing parties to emulate democratic processes, making “free and fair elections” one of the important conditions for assistance.
The last thing we want to export is the notion that money is the speech. Or that whoever acquires the most (irrelevant how and from whom it is raised) virtually controls political speech. The model of campaigns as money-generating machines can so easily project the democratic process as a money-chasing enterprise first, and substance, maybe.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com