|Most people will agree that far too much money is spent on
advertising the candidacies of those who want to be elected supposedly
to serve the public good. Pre-dating the development of television, the
great American humorist Will Rogers joked that “politics has become
so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” The idea
of the corrupting influence of money in politics has long been with us.
Limits have been enacted on individual contributions to campaigns,
but in recent times these limits have been skirted by donating to the
political parties and to independent groups that indirectly support, yet
are not directly connected to, a candidate.
|Should political campaign fundraising and spending be limited?
This question has been asked now for decades, with little change in its
structure between those who say, “Yes it should be limited,” and those
who say, “No it should not.” Those who propose limiting spending
and fundraising believe that doing so will stop the undue influence of
money on our government. They believe that corruption and the power
of the wealthy will be held in check. Those who advocate no limits for
raising money and spending in political campaigns argue that doing
so restricts freedom of speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment,
“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech .”
|This question gets more attention and has become more immediate
since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal
Election Commission 558 U.S. (2010). Citizens United has opened
the floodgates for a surge of money from corporations and wealthy
donors under the guise of “super PACs” to campaigns for all levels of
government offices from the White House to the State House to City
Hall. The result of this torrent of dollars may well be that our democracy,
as we know it, is swept away as our government cascades into a cesspool
of plutocracy. We seem to be riding that wave as 66% of the members of
the U.S. Senate are millionaires while 42% of the members of the “poor”
House of Representatives are in that club. For the nation as a whole,
only one percent of the population can claim that wealthy status .
|The disaster of plutocracy has threatened our nation before. Two
champions of the common people, Presidents Andrew Jackson and
Teddy Roosevelt, however, stood-up to the wealthy moneyed-interests
who maneuvered the nation down the path toward plutocracy. Old
Hickory and the Rough Rider, both astute politicians with unyielding
strength of character were able to defeat the menace of the plutocrats
and their powerful flow of cash.
|Many citizens and organizations believe that the ruling of Citizens
United is the wrong policy for our nation to follow. The New York
Timesspoke for many when it opined that:
|“The court’s ruling in Citizens United will allow corporate money
to play far too important a role in federal elections. It was wrong on the
law, and terrible as policy .”
|Five different versions of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution
have been proposed and introduced by members of the US House
and Senate. Several organizations have been founded on the promise
of creating and passing a similar amendment. All these amendments,
however, would sidestep one of the dearest, most important tenants that represent the fabric of who we are as Americans, the First
Amendment protection of freedom of speech. Many people and several
organizations including The New York Times disagree. They believe that
there is no constitutional problem, no restriction on free speech because
restrictions on contributions to parties would “serve the government’s
legitimate effort to try to prevent influence-buying by big contributors
and influence-selling by two willing parties and politicians .”
|Personally, I am torn in this debate. I look at this dispute from two
perspectives: first, from that of a professor and former practitioner
of advertising who holds dear the first amendment and second, from
that as a candidate elected to public office. These opposing viewpoints
enable me to see clearly this dilemma facing our democracy and to have
the realization that no simple solution exists.
|From the perspective of an advertising professor, I find ignorance
in the debates on this dilemma, when one side tries to simplify their
premise by asserting that, “Money is not speech” While I agree with the
sentiment that is expressed, and understand the presumption behind it,
as an advertiser I know that money is speech. Money helps advertisers
transmit the message to their target audience.
|I teach my students that to reach a target audience effectively, an
advertiser needs a strong combination of reach and frequency. An
advertiser needs to use several different media to reach the audience.
While somewhat alike one another, having been segmented from
the mass audience by their similarities, individual members of that
audience behave differently. They do various activities, at different
times, in different places making it impossible to reach them with a
single medium. Therefore, several media must be utilized. My students
are taught that they must frequently expose the audience numerous
times to the message. The intention of numerous exposures is to get the
attention of the audience and engage them with the message, so that
perhaps their attitudes can be changed or reinforced.
|In simple terms, as an advertiser, I need to be able to speak to
the public as many times as I want, in as many places as I want, and
as loudly as I want. The only real restriction I have to keep me from
speaking as much and as loudly as I want is the lack of money to buy
the media I need to do so.
|In my Civics class in junior high school, I was taught to revere the
First Amendment freedoms we have. My later studies in journalism as an undergraduate and graduate student made me appreciate with a
deeper sense the potency and force those freedoms have in protecting
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
|From the other perspective as a political candidate, I was elected
and served two terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly. I know first
hand the importance of money in a campaign. I know the necessity of
having or raising money in order to build name recognition and present
your message to the voters. Finally, I know the true detrimental effects
that money can have on legislation and ultimately the public good.
Common Cause, in a white paper advocating campaign reform states.
|“Today’s campaign finance system, fueled by big money, creates an
environment ripe for corruption.
|“Members of Congress must daily walk a fine line in order to
avoid the appearance that they are favoring their large donors. Worse
yet, the system has evolved to the point where lawmakers who serve
on committees with jurisdiction over specific issues and sectors of the
economy now receive much of their campaign money from the very
industries they are supposed to regulate .”
|When our guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press were
granted in the Bill of Rights more than 200 years ago, the framers of the
US Constitution probably did not foresee or expect the changes that
would occur in communication technology and the rise of mass media.
Newspapers in the 1780s were little more than irregularly printed
political pamphlets. To prevent the publication or dissemination of
those pamphlets was to restrict the spread of ideas. Having just broken
the yolk of the British and recognizing the ideals of the democratic
society they aspired to, any restriction of the press or of speech was
anathema to their goals.
|There is no way they could have known that in our present
situation of campaign spending gone wild, in an environment where
the influence of the mass media is pervasive in society, that we would
be in danger of selling our political posts to the highest bidder. They
could not have foreseen that we are in grave danger of becoming a
plutocracy. They could not have predicted that the tyranny of the hated
royalty and aristocracy of old Europe as represented by the Redcoats
and tax collectors would be replaced by the filthy rich as represented
by corporate logos and Citizens United. I think they would be appalled
by the immense selfishness of the super rich to use the resources we
all should benefit from for their own benefit and to perpetuate their
power over us through the use of the freedoms the framers intended
to make life better for us all. The continuing demassification of the
media and the further segmenting of the mass audience have made
reaching a large audience of voters ever more difficult and costly. For
political candidates, particularly those below a state-wide office, getting
newspaper coverage has shrunk along with the number of newspapers,
the amount of reporters to cover events, the amount of newshole and
the amount of readers.Similarly, as costs have risen, there has been a
decrease in television coverage of local political events. Radio has seen
a huge decline in the amount of airtime devoted to news with many
stations offering only national broadcast network news if any news at
|Using mass media to reach large numbers of voters is necessary,
and the dwindling amount of earned media coverage means campaigns
need ever-larger amounts of money to promote a candidate through
the media. In the 2012 elections, it is estimated by the Center for
Responsive Politics that $5.8 billion will be spent in the congressional
and presidential races . In an effort to save money, campaigns are
using the Internet and Social Media to promote candidates and to try to get their message to the voters. While potentially much less expensive
than the mass media, it is still difficult to reach huge numbers of voters
with any sort of a substantive and effective message.
|Another lesson I teach my students is that no one turns-on a
television or picks-up a magazine to see the ad that you create, except for
your mother. Infact most of us spend every day trying to avoid ads, with
the possible exception of Super Bowl Sunday. By the same token, only
an extremely small number of us will intentionally expose ourselves
to political ads. Most of us will not devote any great amount of time
or energy to receiving a detailed message. My students learn that the
audience members they are trying to reach will not “work hard to make
sense out of the advertising message you present to them.” Therefore,
intrusiveness is necessary for most advertising messages, and is more
so for most political messages. The mass media are, of course, far more
intrusive than social media, making those mass media a necessity to
successful campaigns despite the high cost.
|Citizens United greatly upped the ante to be viable in campaigns.
Where campaign contribution limits once tempered the influence of
the inequality that might exist in raising money, that temperance no
longer exists. Huge amounts of money can back a candidate both
directly through contributions or especially indirectly through socalled
“independent expenditures.” To think that these candidates are
not influenced in their thinking and their votes when elected is naïve.
Lobbyists who visit elected officials serve as constant reminders to
those politicians about who helped them become a winning candidate.
|Powerful corporations with their resources behind them have a
huge effect on elected representatives and on the populace. During my
time in the Wisconsin legislature, I saw this most directly on a bill to
provide for a statewide franchise for cable television that would trump
those franchises with local governments that had existed and greatly
benefited those communities for many years. Those local franchise
fees supported many community access channels and PEG (Public,
Educational, and Governmental) channels.
|Not only did AT&T send in a swarm of lobbyists to charm, back pat
and arm twist legislators, they also ran full-page newspaper ads across
the state to convince the public that the change to statewide franchises
for cable TV and internet would create more competition and hold
down the costs of subscribing to cable TV. These ads were easily very
persuasive and had an impact on the public. I mean, who doesn’t want
to pay less for cable TV? The bill passed and became law more than four
years ago. I am still waiting to see my Cable TV fee lowered, in fact it
|Unlike what government is intended to do, a corporation’s purpose
is not to promote the general well-being of society; its purpose is to make
a profit for its shareholders. Board members who run corporations,
with their own wealth at stake, want the conditions that affect their
corporation to be favorable to it. They want profits to be generated and
the more profits the better. The power of their money and the resources
it can provide has long helped make these business conditions favorable
for greater profits. The more of those conditions that can be controlled,
the more likely greater profits can be realized. Through government
action, among the conditions that can be controlled are wages, taxes
and the cost of obeying laws and meeting regulations. The power of
this corporate money and the great amount of funds that can go to a
candidate through the writing of a single check makes it obtainable that
these moneyed interests can strongly influence those candidates they
support. One big check written to an independent organization backing
a candidate has the same effect of many limited-amount donations and can save candidates a great amount of time to devote to activities other
|When those candidates are elected, this influence might affect the
way those candidates approach issues of wages, taxes, and regulations.
Those issues are activities in which these elected officials should have
the public welfare as the basis for their decision and not the pleasure of
their corporate and wealthy benefactors.
|We should not entrust our government to those who would
promote their own profits over the common good of the people, but
that is exactly what we are in danger of doing if present trends continue
and the power of money to affect our elections is not held in check.
Our government is influenced by the power of money. Many of those
who serve in our government do so not because of their strength of
character and depth of wisdom, but because of the heft of their own
bank accounts or the wealth of those who back them. We are partly
plutocratic and are rapidly on our way to becoming a pure plutocracy.
|So, it seems we should limit the amount of money that can be raised
and spent in a political campaign but how can that be accomplished
without restricting free speech?
|Because of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and the floodgates of spending it has opened, this dilemma in our democracy
must be settled, but cannot be settled easily. We must protect the power
of the vote, yet by restricting funding of campaigns we restrict one of our
fundamental freedoms that the power of the vote has helped preserve.
|Perhaps it will take the Wisdom of Solomon to solve this dilemma;
I know I do not possess it. I hope that we act soon to find a solution, but
that we act responsibly for the good of our nation and save the power
of the vote from the threat of the persuasive power that money can buy
and at the same time preserve our first amendment freedom of speech.
- Corrado AJ, Malbin MJ, Mann TE, Ornstein NJ (2010) Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns: How to foster citizen participation through small donors and volunteers.
- Shine T (2011) 47% of Congress Members Millionaires-a Status Shared by Only 1% of Americans. The Note, ABC News.
- The Court, Money and Politics. The New York Times.
- Common Cause (2009) Campaign Finance Reform: A New Era.
- Camia C (2012) 2012 election costs could reach record $5.8 billion. USA Today.