The debate over campaign finance law makes me depressed, because it assumes our country’s fate is in the hands of fools.
I don’t mean the fools on Capitol Hill, most of whom are actually pretty savvy. I mean the fools between Munjoy Hill and Beverly Hills — all the Americans gullible enough to vote based on obnoxious and anonymous political ads. If these dimwits are actually deciding who runs the United States, then we deserve the crummy government we get. And that’s a depressing thought.
Olympia Snowe caught some flak for her recent vote against the Disclose Act, a measure that would have required any group spending more than $10,000 on political advertising to promptly disclose the names of the individuals or entities that gave it over $10,000. Under current law, some types of political advocacy groups can wait months before filing financial reports that identify their backers. Other shady players — the so-called “social-welfare groups” — can keep the names of contributors secret forever.
Snowe claims to be an advocate of disclosure and an enemy of partisanship, but — in what must be one heck of a coincidence — all the other Republicans in the Senate voted against the Disclose Act, too.
Snowe said she cast a “nay” because the act doesn’t apply equally to labor unions, whose members don’t individually contribute more than $10,000 to support political groups. Only the super-rich and large corporations have the kind of dough to throw 10 grand away like that, so only they would have to admit they backed a smear campaign. Bobby Buttcrack from Pipefitters Local 207 could remain blissfully anonymous.
Snowe’s objection is baseless because nobody cares about Bobby Buttcrack. It’s enough to know that Pipefitters Local 207 thinks Mitt Romney is a rich jerk. That’s all the disclosure we need. Similarly, we’d be interested to know if ExxonMobil paid big bucks for an ad claiming Barack Obama is responsible for high gas prices. We don’t need to know the names of all the shareholders whose money made the contribution possible.
Snowe also said she voted against the act because she objects to the way the Democratic majority in the Senate introduced it — without prior vetting by a committee or the opportunity to make changes. She has a point, but it’s a very small one, and one she made more convincingly (if futilely) two days later in a letter to Senate leaders of both parties, in which she urged them to work together to end the procedural shenanigans that prevent the Senate from doing its job: passing laws.
Unfortunately, even if the Senate passed the Disclose Act, it would have been dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled House, so Snowe’s vote had no impact either way. But back to the larger point.
As I see it, the threat to democracy isn’t the bozo billionaires spending millions on slick commercials. It’s the bozos who believe what those commercials say and vote accordingly. Forcing groups that produce propaganda to disclose their donors isn’t going to help these numbskulls evaluate the veracity of the claims in those ads, because they’re not interested in dull things like facts or political agendas. They’re voting based on sentimentality and scare tactics, and that’s the scariest thing about this issue.
Real electoral reform must address the electorate. It starts in the schools and it ends right here, in media like the BDN.
Before young people reach voting age, they need to learn how to vote. That means understanding how to research facts and evaluate political positions. It’s Civics 101, and it’s clearly not being taught in our public schools. I’d rather hear how politicians plan to improve that situation instead of blathering about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The primary source of the facts people need to cast an informed vote is the media. We need to provide coverage and analysis of the issues in a clear and compelling way. When propaganda hits the airwaves and the mailbox, the media should evaluate it and promptly disclose any BS. The government has no direct role to play in this, but civics education should include the tools necessary to distinguish reputable news sources from blatantly biased outlets.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “an informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”
As the late George Jefferson said, “If I paid you to think, you could cash your check at the penny arcade.”
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.