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Money conspiracy theories hamper analyzing politics

What do illegal donations intentionally given but unwittingly received, a former presidential candidate preaching jeremiads, and a crushing defeat to the political left all have in common? All together, they underscore the ignorance, from tinfoil-hat-wearing liberals all the way to an ex-officeholder in search of relevance, that many have in understanding the role money plays in electoral politics.

Yesterday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won, easily, a recall election perpetrated by the left, especially facilitated through one of its core constituencies, unions, in an attempt to punish Walker for successful reform efforts that have reduced its power and privilege and as an attempt to intimidate others who may try the reform route in the future. Walker expanded upon his 2010 victory margins that would set the stage for implementation of these and thereby send the left into hysteria.

Naturally, the left refuses to acknowledge it lost because it is wrong on the issues, and instead lapsed into what is called in psychology “displacement,” where the mind redirects an unpalatable conclusion, i.e. losing in the marketplace of ideas, to one that has less to do with reality but psychologically reduces anxiety. In this case, it is the narrative that, because pro-Walker forces raised and spent much more money than did the recall forces, somehow money and money alone made enough people dullards enough to vote against what was best for them.

This view, of course, contradicts what decades of research have discovered about political candidates and causes: you can’t turn lead into gold through a magical infusion of resources. The mistaken conception many, across the political spectrum have is that money can create a quality candidate, when instead that notion is the exact opposite of reality: quality candidates attract money.

The left, perhaps because liberalism deemphasizes critical thinking while promoting emotive responses in its ideology, has a problem understanding that people behave rationally. Donors give to candidates in large part because they are investors. They don’t want to throw away money on a candidate they want in office that they don’t think can get there in the first place. Thus, they give to candidates who demonstrate they have the ability to win, the necessary condition for a payoff for the donation.

Not only does research show this, but history is replete with ex-candidates of all makes and political persuasions who vastly outspent their opponents, almost always relying heavily on their own funds, only to lose by margins more impressive than with Walker’s win. Perhaps the most glaring was the defeat of executive Meg Whitman by former and again Gov. Jerry Brown of California in 2010, where she outspent him in a losing bid for that office by well over $100 million.

It’s also humorous to observe the selective attention and collective amnesia of the left on this idea of money buying elections. When in 2008 Pres. Barack Obama more than doubled up Sen. John McCain in raising and spending, by almost $400 million, the left seemed uninterested in attributing Obama’s victory to his big money advantage.

At least in this case, even if the rationale for hitting on the truth came from an emotive rather than intellectual response, the left had got it right: Obama then was seen as the stronger candidate given the time, mood, and an electorate more willing to decide on visceral criteria than typical. Givers plunked down their money on the horse they thought would win while others shied away from backing someone they saw as unlikely to pull it off.

These conditions very much explain the pattern of giving in the recall contest. Conservative interests saw the strong hand Walker had and felt encouraged to back him. By contrast, the weakness of the position of the recall advocates, as epitomized by Obama’s almost nonexistent involvement in it, signaled to potential donors that they stood a great chance of throwing away their money for no gain. Why Walker got many more resources than his opposition was a function both of his strong position that drew funds and the weakness of his opposition relative to him and his performance in office discouraged giving to it.

Which leads us to the question of the “payoff” concept: when donors invest, what do they expect in return? According to almost all political scientists researching this, except in rare instances, access to a policy-maker is the most any donor can expect. Given the views of voters and their own personal ideologies, and also buffeted by partisan demands, policy-makers use donations to further their own ends, i.e. election or reelection that are more dependent on pleasing constituents, party, and their own consciences, than in taking orders from donors (although in most instances the personal ideology of the official is highly congruent with those of the donors in the first place, so there’s no “buying” of a viewpoint but rather a natural community on interest already existing). Instead, what donors hope for is access to that policy-maker, because without access, influence cannot occur.

Then there’s former Louisiana Gov. and presidential candidate Buddy Roemer, who built an entire and failed, with layers of hypocrisy, campaign on the idea that money does regularly buy policy outcomes. And that’s precisely why his campaign went nowhere, because people, at both a visceral and intellectual level, understood the poverty of that sentiment.

But Roemer, in his own form of displacement, instead conjured up as the motive for lack of support of him big-money interests suppressing his message. This laughable assertion merely provides the prologue to the next phase in his therapy as a recovering politician yearning for his ability to influence to return with his intention to lead an effort to wring money’s influence out of politics.

Again, he offers a solution in search of a problem all the while missing the real issue here: any restrictions on donations designed to influence an election threaten out First Amendment rights and may only be imposed under compelling circumstances, according to the judiciary. One such instance comes in direct gifts to candidates, as courts have ruled there is a compelling interest in the appearance of honesty in elections served by a limit on donations.

Yet just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. By placing limits, not only does it create even less transparent ways to have cash spent on campaigns (even if not coordinated with campaigns), but also encourages illegal behavior that tries to obscure accountability entirely.

Such happened to a number of Louisiana politicians with recent revelations, after an investigation by the state’s Ethics Board, that politically-connected donors seemingly frustrated with limits on campaign cash they individually could give found ways to launder it through fictitious entities. Those behind the illegal sums, at least in one case after giving a former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, subsequently had a policy decision made by him in their favor. Another such revelation about a different source also emerged concerning Gov. Bobby Jindal only.

Even as Nagin and others involved deny they knew of the illegalities, conspiracy theorists could argue that this demonstrates money’s corrupting influence. In reality, if money really did play a role in decision-making, that was made more likely because it could be hidden.

To reduce this likelihood means to remove incentives to hide it, and that would occur with eliminating limits on donations while requiring full disclosure. Any interest could give any amount, but the world would know about and create incentives for other interests to track larger givers to policy actions of those successfully elected to office. Political Action Committees would see a large decrease of incoming money, and the rationale for having 527 groups would disappear. In sum, the chances of money influencing policy, already low and instances rare, would diminish even more.

But as long as the conspiratorial view that exists contrary to reality fuels the ideological, political, and/or vanity needs of its adherents, enough resistance to this reform will prevent its application. And the self-delusion, miscasting of issues, and unnecessary lack of transparency in politics will continue.

1 comment:

Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

This is a great example of Jeff in full "wounded conservative lash-out" mode. First, in spite of all the tin-foil hat crap from the right-wing that he pretends doesn't exist, he now informs us that the left has lost in the "marketplace of ideas," which is what happens exclusively when conservatives win elections. When the left wins anything, Jeff is in full tinfoil hat shriek mode [here's Jeff in full throated tinfoil hat shriekage about ACORN:]. Of course, when a billionaire gambling honcho pours millions in hate ads into a district, this is Jeff's noble "marketplace of ideas." You get the sense that there is nothing that could come out of Jeff's mouth that would make him embarrassed. In one breath he is worshiping Jindal while with the next breath he is our resident pop psychologist explaining "displacement" theory. And speaking of his bile about "liberalism deemphasizes critical thinking," did you notice that the Texas GOP platform just declared "we oppose the teaching of ... critical thinking skills." ( It doesn't take pop psychology to see that Jeff's chutzpah makes him a grade A moron.