The best elections money can buy

"There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is." – Political consultant Mark Hanna, 1896

Spring & Summer, 2012
by Rob Lafferty

Now comes that time when we bear witness to America’s most bizarre and entertaining ritual – the prelude to National Election Day in November.

It’s a time when political hopefuls and incumbents say and do just about anything to win an election. Hypocrisy and propaganda fill the airwaves as television ads portray each candidate as a Strong Leader. A wave of attack ads follows, painting the opposition as someone who wants to steal your money and your freedom.

Specifics are seldom offered about the Leader’s wonderful plan to make life better for everyone, because facts and details don’t make good television. They don’t help win elections in our version of democracy, either.

I enjoy those ads, although they’re repeated far too often. I’m impressed by wordsmiths who can reduce a complex issue into a simple, us-against-them statement. An entire political strategy compressed into one short sentence is a beautiful thing to read – especially when it says nothing at all.

It looked, for a while, as though my hopes for a third political party of independent voters to liven up the elections this fall might come true. When a choice is available, I like to vote for anyone except the Republican or Democrat on my ballot as a way to encourage independent candidates.

So I voted for Ross Perot and John Anderson when each ran for President, because they tried to open up the two-party gridlock we’ve been stuck in for too long. Perot in 1992 and Anderson in 1980 had no chance of actually winning, but any independent candidate’s presence in an election is better for everyone.

Unfortunately, independent politicians are rare creatures these days. The temptation to take special interest money hasn’t changed, but special interests can co-opt a candidate now without actually donating to their campaign. When corporate-funded ads help a candidate get elected, that candidate becomes compromised to some degree. After all, when someone spends money on your behalf, it’s a natural human reaction to feel obliged.

My hopes for an open, honest election continue to fade as I watch corporations and billionaires swamp the political landscape with a flood of money, promoting candidates who share their philosophy of unregulated commerce and limited government.

We’ve seen this phenomena happen before. One example goes back more than a century to the infamous Mark Hanna era when unlimited contributions fed a political system that reeked of corruption.

It helps our economy, I suppose, as some of that money will trickle down through the system, but it raises this question: where’s all that money coming from?

Not from me, and probably not from you, either. It’s coming from sources who have more money than they need but want to make more. It’s coming in from foreign countries and flowing out of corporations once again, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision that removed spending restraints and allows donors to remain anonymous.

A conservative guess is that $400 million has been spent so far by candidate support groups across the nation. One organization alone, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, expects to spend $100 million on political ads in this election, more than twice what it invested in 2008. Before all ballots are cast, it’s likely the 2012 national total will exceed seven billion dollars.

That staggering sum is going into more than just the presidential election. It’s also being spent to influence local elections by folks that have a national agenda. It’s being used, quite simply, to buy elections.

Having the best elections money can buy may be a timeless tradition in America, but it’s one that has served us poorly. Regardless of who wins, the odds are that once again the majority of citizens will receive second-class representation.

As usual, the voice of the American voter will not be heard in 2012. Big Money is talking louder than ever before, and political hopefuls are listening only to the loudest of voices.

Rob Lafferty, a former editor and news reporter in California, Hawaii and Oregon, now lives in the deep woods of Oregon's Coast Range. He can be reached via email at