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Citizens United, or Sheep?

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The Citizens United decision to allow unlimited funding of political candidates by corporations and other entities has led to charges of profligate spending on both the Left and the Right. But it’s all just a new flare-up of the perpetual question of campaign funding. (Remember when a much earlier version of John McCain actually had his name on a campaign finance reform bill?)

Here’s my problem with the whole debate: The mantra of the armies of the Right (I include in this broad category Republicans, Tea Partiers, and Libertarians) has to do with individual responsibility. They assert that individuals can make better decisions about what’s good for them than the government can. That implies that people generally think for themselves. But do they?

The fortunes spent on political advertising imply the opposite. No one would spend these huge sums of money if it didn’t work. Politicians and the groups who support them obviously believe that simplified, magnified messages do influence voters, regardless of whether they’re true or even make sense, and specifically will sway the legion of Independents in the US electorate (those who went for Obama two years ago but are trending Right this year). In other words, people are sheep, susceptible to the most blatant, lowest-common-denominator propaganda that the political message-masters and ad agencies can come up with.

If, on the one hand, people are so easily influenced by simplistic messages (“Yes We Can,” anyone?), yet, on the other, we believe they ought to think for themselves, shouldn’t all political advertising be banned?

But that would be anti-Libertarian!  Or at least anti-free market.  So I don’t see anyone on the Right bewailing Citizens United. They’re perfectly happy to extol the independent judgment of the citizenry, while accepting unlimited funds to saturate the media with lies and third-grade-level insults—funds, by the way, from corporations whose employees have no say in where the profits they help earn are going. Only those on the Left—who themselves receive large contributions from unions, and are engaging in the same low tactics to a lesser degree—seem to have a problem with the Supreme Court’s bizarre decision to treat corporations and groups as if they were citizens.

Isn’t there a fundamental logical fallacy here? Are people sheep? Or are they their own best shepherds? Can the Right have it both ways?

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Baronius

    The Left uses “the same low tactics to a lesser degree”? That tells me which side of the aisle you’re on, Jon.

    I guess I can understand how you’d see it as hypocrisy. I think most people on the Right would say that they need the money to get their message out. Personally, I suspect that ads do a lot less than people think, and their influence is only going to diminish over time. I don’t see anything wrong with buying ad time, though.

    The hypocrisy on the Left that always strikes me is the notion that unions should be exempt from any campaign restrictions, as if Citizens United is an evil corporation but the AFL-CIO is a bunch of guys sitting around talking.

  • roger nowosielski

    It’s a false dichotomy. Labor unions, in collecting dues and using them for political means, have adopted the MO of the corporations; they’ve become in fact another type of corporation. And they’re indistinguishable in that they both vie for political power.

    Where the analogy breaks down, however, is in the funding the unions can command. However corrupt, the unions can’t possibly match the moneys available to the corporations by way of collecting dues, dues that are extracted from the wages of the exploited. True, there are some “fat cats” who had benefited from the labor movement, but they fade in comparison to the kind of wealth and surplus available to corporations. To insist therefore that there is a level playing field in the area of campaign financing is the height of hypocrisy.

    The solution is the Marxist solution. Change the paradigm. Deny the surplus value that is being appropriated by the capitalists by making it workers’ own. Bring democracy to the workplace by restructuring the organization of production. Make workers the board of directors. Both Labor and the Left have been complicit, and are without excuse, for playing the capitalist’s game, a game in which they can only lose. Sterile discussions such as this one, a discussion which leads nowhere, is but an example of the false dilemma.

  • Baronius

    According to the NYT blog, here are some of the contributions levels in this election cycle:

    A.F.S.C.M.E.: $87.5 million
    U.S. Chamber of Commerce: $75 million
    Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: $65.9 million
    American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS: $65 million
    National Republican Congressional Committee: $46.2 million
    Service Employees International Union: $44 million
    National Education Association: $40 million
    Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: $39.4 million
    National Republican Senatorial Committee: $25.8 million

    The blog doesn’t list corporate donations except for the Chamber of Commerce, but it’s simply incorrect to imply that the unions aren’t wealthy enough to be big players.

  • flawsophy

    when someone says, “people know what they want” … I see that as a very good betting strategy much like the gambling, because it is a trivial fact that not everyone makes ‘informed decisions’ – whatever they mean … so any outrageous claim so forth – there is a good chance a substantial ratio might be swung if packaged well !!!

    The politicians are concerned about statistics not individuals or veracity … so, a position that “people know what they want” has two pronged advantages – a. it’s a good bet; b. it’s emotionally satisfying … :)

  • handyguy

    Just outlaw donor anonymity and you’ve solved some of the problem. [Karl Rove says he supports this, but is just playing by the current rules. Mitch McConnell claims ‘the American people’ don’t care about the issue. He is a lying asshole.]

    But the more pernicious ongoing problem is that members of Congress have to be obsessed with fundraising from day one of taking office. They have to spend a lot of time looking and even begging for cash. Industry lobbies [and yes, unions] are an obvious source.

    This is not what they were elected to spend their time on; it’s not in the constitutional definition of their office. And it can create the appearance [and in many cases the reality] of improper influence.

  • Arthur Nixon

    More money means more stealing. There was a time in politics when money was of no value, it was sincerity and honesty that brought leaders to power.

  • Xavier

    By reading your article and comments, I assume that all politics,right and left, want to win the governement to become more powerful. If time ago was some different,how and when did we fail?

  • roger nowosielski


    Perhaps so, but it’s not the members dues that make labor unions the big players. They, too, are in the same pocket, which is why I’m inclined to believe the entire dilemma is a false one.

    Good question, Xavier, but I think Mr. Nixon exaggerates somewhat.

  • handyguy

    Races have become much more expensive, and the probability of money distorting democracy has grown accordingly.

  • Baronius

    Xavier, I disagree with that. I just don’t think that money is that much of a threat.

  • handyguy

    It’s two issues: the spending of the money we can argue about in terms of effect. [Negative ads don’t work? Tell that to Karl Rove and David Koch.]

    But the necessity for obtaining the money is even more pernicious. It doesn’t bother you at all that members of congress have to spend so much time and effort begging for money, often from potentially compromising sources?

  • Baronius

    We’ve talked about this before, Handy. If advertising were the be-all and end-all of campaigns, then Linda McMahon would be Senator-elect. TV advertising is the biggest expense for political campaigns, and even if you believe that they’re effective, you have to recognize that they’re becoming less so. A candidate’s website, tweets, and Facebook page are increasingly important. So I think that in the long run, campaign finance is going to be a moot issue.

    I also don’t think that the process of obtaining money is necessarily corrupting. To use the Connecticut example again, let’s face it, Rick Blumenthal sold his soul a long time ago, and it wasn’t for money.

  • Sal Paradise

    It’s amazing how many excuses people like Jon Sobel will make to take away our 1st amendment rights.

  • handyguy

    #12: Not exactly a rigorous proof or counterexample regarding money’s influence!

    When an officeholder spends up to half his/her time on fundraising, something is off balance.

    One ‘lesson’ from yesterday’s elections is that spending lots of your own money works better if you are a man — ask Meg Whitman and Russ Feingold.

    At any rate, someone obviously believes attack ads work, and they do great damage to the general level of political speech. Everything is about gaining an advantage, nothing is about principle. We all lose in the long run.

  • Baronius

    Well, that was a counterexample. Not a rigorous proof, though. And I don’t have time to do a regression analysis. But let me throw these two observations out. Both involve the six most expensive races of this past cycle: the Senate races in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

    – In three cases (AZ, CA, FL), the candidate who raised the most money won. In two (CT, WI) the candidate lost. Reid and Angle raised and spend about the same amount of money.

    – In all six of those races, there was another major statewide race, for the governor. In at least four of them (CA, AZ, FL, WI), the gubernatorial candidate of the Senate winner’s party also won. Connecticut’s governor’s race is too close to call. Interestingly, the candidate who lost the gubernatorial race in Nevada distanced himself from the one who won the Senate seat.

    What does this mean? Apparently, the “Republican tidal wave” was more of a factor than a candidate’s individual spending.

  • roger nowosielski

    What this kind of argument is patently negligent of is the “everything else being equal” clause. But then again, since when sound reasoning should be heeded to when political and emotional interests are on the line.

    Personally, I;m rather glad Democrats suffered a setback but not for idealogical reasons but for their piss-poor performance. But as to the more general and abstract question – although not quite so abstract in terms of consequences – I suggest that our good friend Baronius put that selfsame question to Mr. Karl Rove, arguing as he does about at most a tenuous connection between money and politics.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Baronius, if the highly unpleasant governor’s race in California is anything to go by (and it is – I ended up wanting to throw both of the wretches into a furnace), I also can’t get behind Jon’s claim that the left uses attack ads “to a lesser degree”.

    Personally speaking, the more ads a candidate puts out defaming his or her opponent rather than promoting him- or herself, the less I feel inclined to vote for him or her (assuming I could vote, which I can’t).

    The local politician I respect the most here in California is Assembly Member Juan Arambula, who just termed out at this election. He sat as an independent, having left the Democratic Party a year or two ago over some major policy differences. I’m wondering if one of the points of contention was his refusal to run negative ads, even when his opponents attacked him. An Arambula ad would typically highlight a particular concern of his, then at the end he would simply come on screen and say, “I’m Juan Arambula and I would appreciate your vote on Election Day.”

    A thoroughly decent guy.

  • Dan(Miller)

    I agree that attack ads are stupid and insult our intelligence (if any). They also demean the candidate who runs them and, to a greater extent, the voters who rely on them.

    However, they are repeated gratis, ad nauseam, and work. This article does a decent job of explaining why.


  • Baronius

    Au contraire, Rog. By looking at major statewide elections in the same state, I came as close as possible to a control group.

  • roger nowosielski

    “Everything else being equal,” Baronius, is the operative phrase.

    Anyway, here’s one take on money and politics from a source you’re likely to discount,

    Democracy Now!

    As a side question, do you think it’s the wisest use of the dollar in times of the most severe economic crisis?

  • Baronius

    Roger, you’re never going to have two identical races to compare. It’s impossible. Maybe O’Malley/Ehrlich in Maryland, 2006 and 2010. But otherwise, there is no “everything else being equal” in politics. Does that mean we can’t learn anything by studying it? No. It just means we have to pick our examples carefully, and keep aware of what makes each race different.

    The most expensive race in the country was the Senate race in CT. The Democrat won 55-44. In the Governor’s race in the same state, the candidates. The Democrat won 50-49.

    McMahon tv ad spending: 9.7m
    Blumenthal tv ad spending: 0.5m
    R/D tv ad ratio: 19.4

    Foley tv ad spending: 2.4m
    Malloy tv ad spending: 2.1m
    R/D tv ad ratio: 1.1

    What’s worth noting is that Blumenthal was a terrible candidate. He repeatedly lied about serving in Vietnam. So where’s the proof that advertising helps anything?

  • handyguy

    It’s no guarantee. It’s not a formula, like “Run lots of negative ads and automatically win.”

    But it probably made a difference in some House races in swing districts.

    Maybe all the highly paid consultants and gurus and Karl Roves of the world are wrong, and Baronius alone is right. But just possibly the reality is somewhere in between.

    Perhaps we can look on it as a mild economic stimulus — all that money paid some people’s salaries and kept them working.

  • roger nowosielski

    Sure, but that’s where hypothetical models come in handy. If you take two equally unknown candidates with next to no difference in their views, those who will command greater exposure are more likely to win. I was never arguing that money in politics is the only factor, but to negate the proposition is more unreasonable than to assert it.

    The very popularity of brand names, to take an example from a related field, does lend support to the idea that advertising matters. Why would business concerns commit a significant part of their profit if they didn’t believe that? Of course, in hard economic times people will opt for cheaper, generic products, but that’s the kind of exception that proves the rule.

    Is the advertised brand necessarily better than a generic one? Blind-test experiments often disprove such claims. But then again, the question of quality is not at issue here.

  • handyguy

    Unlike consumer advertising, the point of many political ads is to make voters think your opponent is the spawn of Satan.

    If candidate A starts out with favorable ratings of 45% and negative ratings of 35%, and after a month of blistering ads his negative rating goes to 40 or more, you’ve accomplished your goal and almost surely cost him some votes.

    This holds even if voters claim they hate those damn ads. And of course Candidate A will certainly be trying to do the same thing to you.

    Meanwhile the public’s disgust with politics and politicians grows more intense.

  • roger nowosielski

    It’s called politics of fear.