Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Wealth votes early and often

Everyone is aware that the upcoming election will be themost expensive in history. I think the Republicans are expected to expend about a billion dollars to defeat President Obama and the Democrats hope to have about the same amount.  The recent election in Wisconsin exemplifies how costly our elections have become.  Governor Scott Walker (Republican) raised $30.5 million, about two-thirds of which came from outside the state.  Challenger Tom Barrett raised $3.9 million, 26% of which came from outside. 

The out-of-state donations seem excessive.  What did the outsiders who coughed up $20 million for Walker expect for their money?  And those who donated the $1 million for Barrett – was it worth pouring into a rat hole?  What do any donors expect for their money?  In theory the candidates may not actually know where the money comes from -- this is the way the Supreme Court thinks --but the reality has to be otherwise.  If I, for instance, give out a big sum to support a candidate, don’t I expect something of interest to me to come from it?  Walker, for instance, need not have known where those $20 million came from, but at least some of those donors – they must be mainly deep pocket donors – must surely expect something out of it.  It is reasonable to suppose that they would give bundles of money anonymously?  

The candidates in our elections must surely be in hoc to their donors, somehow.  It seems odd if a candidate has no idea of whom he/she is indebted to.  Surely the candidate knows that he has debts to pay.  If he fails to pay, if he were to displease his donor-base there is a chance they will shift their money elsewhere next time – or worse, use their largess against him next time.   For those with the money there are ways of making sure their story will be heard – we can hardly escape the TV ads, paid for, of course, by those with big money.  So Walker now has debts – and most of them outside the state.

This seems to be the way it works, and not only in Walker’s case.  We hear that most candidates for office spend much of their time on the phone begging for money – a tragic waste of the talents of anyone capable of governing a state or a country.  Once elected the candidates have big debts; big gifts mean big obligations.

We tell ourselves that we have representative government, meaning that those in office represent the will of the people who elect them, but what is the reality?  In practice elections are won by those who somehow acquire money enough to tell their stories, told the way they want them told.  Advertising matters; that’s why they spend so much hard cash on it.  The result, as in the case of Scott Walker, is that the winner takes office with a bundle of obligations, the more of them the more money they have received.  And now we hear that the obligations of those in office – or at least those who will be in office after the next election – will be humongous.  How can an elected official claim to represent everyone when in fact he/she owes thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars to the donors who helped put him in office? 

What it seems we have is elected officials whose practical obligations are to big donors.   Instead of senators representing the citizenry of their state we have senators representing large moneyed interests.  The legislative process thus entails negotiations among senators who are representing major donors (corporations or super-rich individuals).  Imagine – could it be this bad? – a senator from ExxonMoble sits down with a senator from Merk and a senator from Archer Daniels Midland and a senator from United Health Group so that they can work out their differences in writing the laws that will govern this country.  It goes without saying that no senator representing the “projects” or the underprivileged sectors of an inner city would be counted in these negotiations.
Folks can say that we all have a voice, and it’s true: we still have a one-person-one-vote system.  The difference is that the wealthy have bigger megaphones than the rest of us.  They get to promote their stories through huge media outlets, and of course they tell it their way – leaving out certain details and emphasizing others according to their own perspective.  They have in practice a kind of extra vote – maybe many votes, the more the more powerful their megaphone.  For most of us, our megaphones don’t reach many people. 

Our government is not as representative as we thought.  It would be nice, though, if we knew who the donors are that put the guys into office.  To whom is Scott Walker indebted?  And for that matter, I wish I knew who my senators are in hoc to.  If I knew that, I think I would understand better why they do what they do.  

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