How Money Is Deforming Our Politics

The 2010 midterms will go down as one of the most fiercely fought elections in our political history. Nasty campaigns from Connecticut and Wisconsin to California, Alaska, and back to Nevada wiped out the Democratic majority in the House and reduced their unreliable super-majority in the Senate. What was this strife all about? Yes, there were policies to fight over, although the Republicans seem unlikely to repeal health-care legislation. And yes, the chronic problems of our electoral system—the breakdown of party structures, the 24/7 media frenzy, and voter volatility—exacerbated uncertainties and anxieties. And then there was economy. But above all, there was a tsunami of money.

Early in the fall, the New York Times began tracking the slush of money with graphs and charts. Politico ran a fact-filled series on the emergence of independent 401(c) campaign funding. The Washington Post weighed in with the news that three self-financed candidates--Meg Whitman (California), Rick Scott (Florida), and Linda McMahon (Connecticut), together had spent a quarter-billion dollars. Did I hear a national gasp?

The proposition that money matters had its skeptics. David Brooks pooh-poohed money-gate in his New York Times column (October 18). Headlined “Don’t Follow the Money,” Brooks concluded that “money is almost never the difference between victory and defeat.”  A counterintuitive judgment from an expert on class and the American way of life. Still, Brooks raises a good point. If it wasn't the difference between victory and defeat, how did money matter?

Let us consider the possibilities:

Be Rich. Candidates rich enough to fund their own races are intrinsically attractive to political parties, like a free round-trip vacation. Whitman, in California’s gubernatorial race, and McMahon’s senatorial bid in Connecticut smartly preempted their primary challengers and went on to spend millions against their Democratic opponents. Yet both lost. Does that mean money doesn’t matter? Or does it mean, rich, politically untested contenders are high-risk choices for a party? Had it not been for the money, the primaries might have produced a competitive Republican candidate in both contests, a candidate with enough political experience to avoid the undocumented housekeeper who did in Whitman and the obscenely excessive advertising that alienated Connecticut voters from McMahon.

Know the rich—and let them know you. Candidates for national office must raise hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. Inevitably, they are beholden to big donors. Charles Schumer, New York’s Democratic senator, ran virtually unopposed and yet raised $16 million by mid-October. He spent $11 million and still had $16 million left (presumably from previous campaigns). Five million of Schumer’s funds came from the financial, insurance, and real-estate industries; $28,000 of it from Goldman Sachs, which spent $1.9 million on a hundred 2010 races, down from $5.9 million in 2008—but hey, times are tough. Is the largesse of Goldman, Citibank, Deutsch Bank, etc., the reason reform legislation didn’t quite close the books on financial shenanigans?

Oblige the rich. The financial floodgates were opened by the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision in Citizens United, which allowed corporations to contribute directly to candidates. Following an earlier Wisconsin decision allowing 401(c) nonprofits to sponsor issue ads and the failure of Congress to pass corrective legislation, the most abusive and legally dubious practice of the campaign emerged. Anonymous donors, corporate and otherwise, contributed millions for attack ads, mostly targeted at Democratic incumbents. (The IRS has yet to rule on the legality of that maneuver.) The flow of cash and ads followed GOP operative Karl Rove’s promise of anonymity to donors who can write a check and attack without fear of exposure. Case in point: Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) found himself under siege from “Concerned Taxpayers of America,” which was running TV ads in his district. Who were these concerned taxpayers and what did they want? After a good deal of sleuthing by the Huffington Post, one of the two donors behind “Concerned Taxpayers” was identified. A resident of New York, he is a hedge-fund manager opposed to DeFazio’s proposal to tax the short-term transactions hedge funds favor. Defeating DeFazio in Oregon by misrepresenting his record was an easier shot than opposing his plan in Congress. DeFazio won on November 2. Here’s hoping he holds hearings on taxing hedge funds where he can meet face-to-face the man who spent so much to defeat him. 

Does money matter? If it's not always the difference between victory and defeat, it clearly empowers the rich and allows them to buy our votes. 

Related: What Now? by E. J. Dionne Jr.
Corporate Mischief, by Joseph D. Becker
Cleaning Up the Supreme Court Mess, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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"it [money] clearly empowers the rich and allows them to buy our votes."


So, Mrs. Steinfels, will you let us know what rich person bought your vote?   Or is it only other people, presumably those who vote for different candidates then you, whose vote is bought? 

You forgot to mention "get American Bishops to endorse the Rich"  by scapegoating abortion issue.

There is no mention of money spent by the labor unions or billionaire George Soros on supporting canidates in the elections!

God Bless the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Mark Proska: I unwillingly voted for Charles Schumer and my vote was bought in the sense that Schumer's campaign funds certainly discouraged others from going up against him. Kirsten Gillebrand, for whom I did not vote, went unchallenged in the primary because Schumer and others actively discouraged other possible candidates.  There are many ways to buy votes and in the current circumstance, we are all in the same boat.


Mrs. Steinfels--

Although we're all in the same boat, we can chose to sink or swim.  I'm sorry you allowed your vote to be bought so easily.   In your case, isn't voting for Senator Schumer only encouraging more buying of votes, by rewarding him for doing so?   Perhaps voting for a write-in candidate would be a good way of speaking truth to power.   I'm sure there are many who feel as you do, if you all refused to vote for the candidate trying to purchase your vote...who knows.

Mark Proska,

Chuck Shumer did not buy my vote.  I voted for him because I think he's qualified.  And I abstained from voting for or against Kirsten Gillibrand because I don't agree with her on an issue that's important to me.  ** 

In the last two years I have lost any respect I had for the Republican party.   When they weren't saying NO, they were distorting Obama's Health Care plan, and criticizing his stimulus program while at the same time taking credit for what it accomplished.  One Republican governor signed a racist law in Arizona.  Instead of denouncing the Tea Party for the hateful group that it is, Republicans stood by as it encouraged an angry, sometimes threatening that compared Obama to Hitler. Last night they collectively voted against Obama and Democrats, but in light of the above distortions, I'm not surprised.   And yet Tea Party candidate, Rand Paul, who opposes Civil Rights law, won the election.  If it takes money to fight distortions and bigotry, so be it.  I doubt a write-in candidate can do that. 

Money buys publicity and fuels even the ego of those running, win or lose. Simple Sarah is a case in point. All she craves is her moment in the spotlight. She has no program or legislative proposals, no ideas about rescuing the huge numbers of unemployed, of bringing sanity back to our financial system. Gullible voters cannot discern the ins and outs of campaign claims or allegations and tend to respond to whoever makes the most noise. If Witless NutMeg had not made so many guffaws (despite having a team of experts trying to run her and her campaign) she should have beaten Jerry Brown (of governor moonbeam fame) handily. In fact she lost miserably but only because she was proven so inept and self-serving. Why is it so difficult to find appealing and honest candidates in the first place? Answer: they do not fit in with the corporate agenda.

Madame Steinfels' ability to clearly state what most of the electorate knows is amazing.  The cost of running for any office above local government can be daunting for anyone of ordinary means.  However, it was quite refreshing to see Linda McMahon to spend her own money, rather than taking money as Senator Harry Reid did from the Nevada gambling establishment (Wall Street Journal, 10/31/10).  One wonders Madame’s area of discussion but many people seemed to gain most of their information from TV programs and not advertisements.  Ariana Huffington whiningly complained about the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in an interview by Chris Matthews, suggesting the government has the only “off” switch to FoxNews.  Of course, her lament falls on deaf ears considering the progressive television venues of MSNBC, NBC, CBS and ABC, as opposed to FoxNews being the only conservative television venue. 

It is amazing Madame failed to mention “THE” story of this election cycle, the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship relegated to the sidelines.  This election cycle is in contradistinction to the 2008 cycle when liberal clergy and laypersons did everything but stand on their heads endorsing now President Obama, e.g. Father Michael Pfleger, Nicholas Cafardi, in the name of the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship.  This should not be a cause for celebration since the bishops abandoned their own principles as outlined in the brilliant USCCB document, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics

The American people voted overwhelmingly for Republicans, not because they are Republicans, but because more Republicans and a few Democrats were immovable in their principles that resonated with most people.  The Most Reverend Bishops should listen to their faithful as well, and chuck Faithful Citizenship and re-embrace Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. And Madame Steinfels please pursue the real story.

“Mark Proska: I unwillingly voted for Charles Schumer and my vote was bought in the sense that Schumer's campaign funds certainly discouraged others from going up against him” (Margaret Steinfels).

I’d be very grateful if Mrs. Steinfels would please tell us why she felt compelled against her own will to vote for Charles Schumer, who, more than any other member of the United States Senate, is identified with legalized abortion.  I’m especially interested in the rationale behind that vote inasmuch as Mrs. Steinfels has recently published courageous observations on Commonweal’s blog regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--observations that clash with Senator Schumer’s stance on that issue.

Why did Senator Schumer’s opponent--Jay Townsend, who received the endorsement of the New York State Right to Life Committee--not deserve an unwilling vote, even from someone committed to the socioeconomic teachings of the Catholic Church?

Yes, I’ve read Mr. Townsend’s horrendous statement on “national security” on his campaign Web site.  Despite that statement, if I were still a New York State voter, I’d have cast my unwilling ballot for Mr. Townsend instead of Senator Schumer.  At least Mr. Townsend would spare the lives of innocent children in their mothers’ wombs.  Here in Tennessee, I volunteered in the campaign of a congressional candidate, David Hall, who may be described as a Christian Zionist.  Mr. Hall received the endorsement of Tennessee Right to Life.

I believe that we should all ponder a crucial point made by our shepherds in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States (section 37):

“In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.”

Where did I follow the money trail? Here: The site draws its information from candidates' official filings. As the column suggested I followed the issue in the New York Times and Washington Post and on Politico.

Why did I vote unwillingly for Schumer. As New Yorkers may remember, in the last mayoral election Bloomberg was expected to win big against Thompson. In fact, the polls notwithstanding, Thompson did very well though, of course, he lost. I did not expect that Townsend would beat Schumer but I felt forewarned by the mayoral example. There are many reasons not to want Schumer as senator--his ties to Wall Street loom large at this moment in the national economic trauma. Nonetheless, Townsend was not a credible candidate.


Stephen O'Brien asks Ms. Steinfels, "I’d be very grateful if Mrs. Steinfels would please tell us why she felt compelled against her own will to vote for Charles Schumer, who, more than any other member of the United States Senate, is identified with legalized abortion."  Ms. Steinfels, ignores the abortion issue and states basically that however small the chances were that the pro-life Mr. Townsend would win, she couldn't take that chance and voted for Schumer.  Thus, we have the co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture expressing, in effect, contemptuous indifference to the issue of abortion.  I am old enough to remember when Fordham was a Catholic College.  Make no mistake, indifference to abortion means pro-abortion.  Can you imagine what Ms. Steinfels would think of someone who claimed to be "pro-choice" on the issue of slavery? (You know, "I would never personally own a slave, but I don't want to force my views...")  This is truly a tragic state of affairs.  

Why is it that people voluntarily contributing to candidates and causes is "buying votes" but using the power of the state to distribute economic benefits (and punishments) is "social justice." 

I can choose whether or not to listen to George Soros or Christine Whitman purchased messages.  What little esteem must progressives have for their fellow citizens if the believe this "tsunami" of money makes that much difference.

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