Don’t Get Bought

Spring & Summer, 2012
by Rob Lafferty

The difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe is this: a bribe goes directly into someone’s pocket while a contribution gets deposited into a bank account. The level of influence remains the same in either case.

But if we really want to adhere to the Constitution and allow free speech in America, then we can’t stop corporations or rich folks from spending millions of dollars to influence the outcome of elections. The Supreme Court has so ruled, and they are right.

On the other hand, Justice Anthony Kennedy offered this strange justification in support of that decision: "We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

The Supremes said that checks written to allegedly independent PAC groups are not contributions or donations to a campaign. In the minds of a 5-4 majority of the Court, those checks qualify as free speech in the same way that corporations qualify as people. They didn’t discuss or address the impact that money can bring to bear on a candidate’s independence.

Billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson certainly understands what his recent $10 million gift to a PAC that supports Willard Romney is all about: “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections, but as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.”

The amount of money invested in campaign advertising and expenses is huge and growing with every national election. In 1976, the total for all spending in the contest for the Presidency was somewhere around $67 million. By 1996, money spent on advertising alone reached about $113 million.

The contested 2000 election brought record spending at all levels, estimated at more than $3 billion dollars in whole. The 2008 presidential campaign alone ate up about $2.5 billion of the more than $5 billion total spent that year. This year’s national total could exceed $7 billion, as each presidential candidate expects to raise more than a billion in cash. Those amounts will all set new records that should last about, oh, four years.

All that cash flows into a candidate’s account, then it flows out to…where? A great big chunk of it goes into advertising, and that chunk gets swallowed by six of the largest corporations on the planet. That’s no surprise, since they own and control most of the large media outlets that distribute news and entertainment in America. In order of size, those corporations are: Walt Disney Company; News Corp; Time Warner; Viacom; Vivendi Universal and Bertelsmann.

That group also donates millions of dollars into the electoral process, but they get back a lot of their cash when they sell airtime for ads. In effect, they can buy political influence with candidates then make a profit when candidates use that money to influence the voters. That’s good for their business, but it has nothing to do with democracy.

The rest of the money gets circulated to folks in the public relations world. None of it produces much except sound bites and posters, but some cash does trickle down through local economies. It certainly doesn’t pay for a better government for average folks.

The real problem, however, is not political ads in general, or the special interest groups who finance them, or the corporations that distribute them. It’s not even a problem when those ads distort the truth, because advertising is pretty much all about distortion and spin. Political ads have the same loose relationship with the truth as movie previews – they usually promise much more than they deliver.

The problem is that the ads seem to work.

They work because too many voters rely on them for information about candidates and issues. They work because a bold lie can be easier to accept than a subtle truth. They work because we don’t reject candidates who try to sway voters by spending buckets of money.

The only way to diminish the influence of advertising is completely ignore it, never repeat a word of what you hear in a political ad, and try to share free and accurate information wherever you can.

In the presidential election, there’s not much that can be done to change the situation this year, as both candidates – and their supporting PACs – will spend their hundreds of millions of dollars. At local levels, however, one solution may be to vote for the person who spends the least amount of money but spends the most amount of time actually talking to people in the community they hope to represent.

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