Every election year brings vivid reminders of how money distorts our politics, poisons our lawmaking, and inevitably widens the gulf between those who can afford to buy influence and the vast majority of Americans who cannot. In 2012, this gulf will become a chasm: one analysis predicts that campaign spending on presidential, congressional, and state elections may exceed $6 billion and all previous records. The Supreme Court has held that money is in effect speech, it talks; and those without big money have become progressively voiceless.
That it may cost as much as a billion dollars to run for president is scandal enough, but the multimillions it now takes to pursue or defend a seat in Congress are even more corrupting. Many of our legislators spend hours of every day begging for contributions from wealthy constituents and from the lobbyists for corporate interests. The access and influence that they routinely sell give the moneyed a seat at the tables where laws are written, to the benefit of those contributors and often to the disadvantage of the rest of us.
And why do the candidates need all that money? Because electoral success requires them to buy endless hours of expensive television time for commercials that advertise their virtues and, more often, roundly assail their opponents with frequently spurious claims. Of the more than a billion dollars spent on political commercials this year, probably more than half will go for attack ads.
It has long been obvious that television ads dominate electioneering in America. Most of those thirty-second ads are glib at best but much of the time they are unfair smears of the opposition. And we all know that those sordid slanders work—the more negative the better—unless they are instantly answered with equally facile and equally expensive rebuttals.
Other election expenses pale beside the ever larger TV budgets. Campaign staffs, phone and e-mail solicitations, billboards and buttons and such could easily be financed with the small contributions of ordinary voters. But the decisive TV competitions leave politicians at the mercy of self-interested wealthy individuals, corporations, unions, and groups, now often disguised in “Super PACs” that can spend freely on any candidate so long as they are not overtly coordinating with that candidate’s campaign. Even incumbents who face no immediate threat feel a need to keep hoarding huge war chests with which to discourage potential challengers. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, for example, was easily reelected to a third term in 2010 but stands poised five years before his next run with a rapidly growing fund of $10 million.
A rational people looking for fairness in their politics would have long ago demanded that television time be made available at no cost and apportioned equally…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.