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    « DISCLOSE, it Turns Out, Won’t… | Main | When is a Rant not a Rant? A Review of J. C. Bourque's "Squeezed" »
    Thursday
    Jul122012

    Oprah Winfrey: Is She Using Money to Influence Politics?

     

    I recently posted an article on Facebook that showed the face of a smiling Michael Tubbs, the 21-year-old running for a seat on the Stockton, California city council. Why is he smiling? He had just found out that Oprah Winfrey had donated $10,000 to support his candidacy, an amount equal to one-third of his $30,000 fund-raising goal.

    I found this interesting because of all the talk these days about the influence of money on politics. While these discussions often focus on the big races (like the presidential race and the recent recall election in Wisconsin), it’s easy to forget that, to paraphrase former Speaker Tip O’Neill, most politics is local, and that local politics has an interesting way of impacting real people in very direct ways.

    I wondered if, while all of the rhetoric spins around the Koch brothers or George Soros (or, lately, Sheldon Adelson), Oprah Winfrey wasn’t doing something similar. Wasn’t she providing a tremendous amount of money (in raw percentage terms) to assist a candidate’s campaign?  And, in doing so, wasn’t she fundamentally pushing an ideology?

    So I posed this question out on the CoffeePartyUSA’s Facebook page:

    Perhaps many will disagree with me, but how is it that it's okay for Oprah to donate 33% of a politician's campaign donation target, but it's not okay for Soros or Koch to do the same thing? Shouldn't we want ALL money like this out of politics?

    The question crossed the timelines of more than 60,000 people over the next few days, and the comments quickly stretched beyond the confines of screen size.  Keeping up with them was hard enough; responding to a substantial number of them individually would have been nearly impossible.  Still, as the back-and-forth grew I saw some interesting patterns, and so decided to use today’s post to respond, in general, to the many who took the time to write.

    First off, thanks go to the vast majority who remained civil, both to me and to each other. What we are slowly learning is that engaging the mind is more interesting than engaging the gut; it leads to conversation (as opposed to rant). For those few others: I don’t like being called stupid (or worse) and I’m betting you wouldn’t like it, either. So please stop.

    Now, to my ad hoc analysis.  The responses fell, roughly, into four categories:

    1)     Yes, I agree with you, Michael. You’re incredibly brilliant, and we should get all the money out of politics NOW!  I bow before these people, humble and proud.

    Wow! That seemed self-serving….Perhaps I should start again:

    1)     I agree that we should get the money out of politics.

    Perhaps a third or so of the comments expressed this basic point, acknowledging that money, fundamentally, is a corrupting influence on the process (as Montana, by the way, figured out way back in 1912, but which Scalia, et.al. just don’t get).  However, there were quite a few of these agreements with a big “comma-but” attached, leading to the second item…

    2)     …but we should not agree to unilateral disarmament.

    The argument here is that the Republicans are doing it big time, and if the Democrats don’t, then the left risks fighting a battle without weapons.  My response to this is two-fold. First, the current pattern suggests that even playing the same game isn’t likely to succeed. The amounts of money spent on the right—Adelson alone has promised (threatened) to use $100 mil of his own money to assist Romney’s election bid—suggests that the Democrats will always be the Toledo Mudhens trying to take on the New York Yankees.  You might get a single or a double here and there, but you ain’t winnin’ the game….  Secondly, why hasn’t anyone thought about changing the game entirely? I’m not sure how (nor am I particularly interested in helping the Democrats come up with new strategies) but they do continue to play the far right’s game with the far right’s bat and ball.

    3)     C’mon, Michael! $10,000? What’s the big deal?  Koch and Adelson and Rove are talking millions! Maybe even billions!

    This is the argument of scale, and it fails on several levels. First of all, Oprah’s $10k represents 33% of Tubbs’ expected need. Adelson’s $100 mil is probably closer to 10-20% of what Romney will need.  So whose, really, is the greater contribution?  However, the real nail in this argument’s coffin is that it ignores the principle: Is it right or wrong for people to contribute outsized amounts to political campaigns? I believe it’s wrong.

    4)     Look, Michael: Oprah’s not buying influence. She doesn’t expect anything in return.  Whereas those other guys….

    This argument strikes me as naïve on several levels. First of all, to assume we know what Oprah is thinking or intending is presumptuous.  While I agree that it seems unlikely she’s developed a sudden desire to unduly influence the city of Stockton, it still comes down to this: Oprah believes certain things (we can call it… oh, I don’t know… an “ideology”)  and has decided to donate a chunk of cash to a candidate who apparently believes as she does (at least in key respects). So, in effect, she is expecting something in return, just as we all do we when donate. We’re expecting that the politician whom we helped to elect will represent our beliefs and interests, and represent it well.  The difference is that if I pick up the phone and call my Congressman (to whom I donated, say $50), is he really going to listen all that seriously to what I have to say? Probably not.  I’m betting, thought, that if, a year downstream, the phone rings in Tubbs’ apartment at one in the morning and it’s Oprah on the other end, he’s not only listening, he’s taking notes.

    There were a few other odd-and-sundry thoughts brought up, but those above represent the major themes.

    Oh. Except for one other. And to me it’s the most interesting. It goes something like this:

    Oprah Winfrey wants to do things I agree with. It would be untenable, of course, for me to admit that the way she goes about achieving those things might be fundamentally wrong. Since the cognitive dissonance inherent in such thinking would likely make my head explode, I will find any justification I can for why her behavior is fundamentally different than those bad, bad people on the other side.

    This is the scary one, the unfortunate raison d’etre that drives today’s political dialogue. The “we’re moral and they’re not” argument is a big reason we’re in this mess in the first place.  So let’s just take a deep breath and accept that all behavior and all belief includes shades of gray, and that people on both sides can behave thoughtfully and intelligently—and poorly. If we do, we can be more critical of the political process as it happens across the spectrum and can, ultimately, make better decisions for ourselves and for future generations.

     

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    Reader Comments (6)

    Did anyone mention that it's entirely possible that Oprah is playing the long game here? She clearly saw something in this kid, be it ambition, brains, heart, etc. that she felt was worth investing in. He's only 21. Could she be reverse Manchurian-ing him? Essentially buying his loyalty early such that she can groom him for larger endeavors?

    As conspiracy sounding as this is, I don't think it's that far outside the realm of possibility. Look at Mitt. He was literally brought up to realize his father's dream. His inability to hold a position for 10 minutes is born out of decades of pandering to the largest voting bloc.

    If Oprah sees some Obama charisma in this kid in California, maybe she's just trying to make sure he doesn't go to the other side.

    July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

    In this country, the way we keep score is with money. I receive pleas for money just about every day from the Obama campaign, while to me it seems obvious he'll win easily. No amount of money spent on the other side would result in my vote changing to Mitt Romney.

    The other unfortunate situation is that politicians have to be in constant fund raising mode to keep up with what will be needed, and it leaves them little time to build coalitions, think deeply about policy, etc. Receiving 33% of the goal frees up this local guy to do other things, so for me that is alright.

    I believe in taking all money out of politics, but come on, that is not happening ever as long as those with the money and influence it buys like things as they are. The McCain -Feingold campaign finance law, the way it was gutted to be passed and the way it was worked around after it was passed, shows this clearly.

    I don't have a problem when people I do agree with play the system for all it's worth, because the alternative is handing power over to those I despise, distrust, and fear. It's just the way it is...

    July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVickie Lord

    You make good points in your response, as do the commenters here. I was one of the "c'mon, it's only ten grand, it's not like it's ten million." But, in truth, I feel this is a war that is being fought with money, and guys like this kid will never win without the help of people like Oprah. Should we get money out of politics? Well, YES! Will that happen? I'm dubious, at best.

    Also, I would like to respond to a comment made here: referring to Obama's pleas for donations to his campaign - "...to me it seems obvious he'll win easily." That is what I thought about Al Gore in 2000. He was clearly the more experienced and more intelligent candidate with better ideas. What I did not count on were the Karl Roves of this world who don't play fair. I will never make that mistake again.

    July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMJPride

    you make the comparative assumption that Romneys success depends on a1 billion plus coffer. By my accounting, the outrage of money influence comes from that inflated and grotesque over kill designed to swamp competition "with carpet bombing negative ads" and "buy" the election.. Is the 30,000 reflective of that gross overkill . I seriously doubt it. Percentages do NOT convey an accurate comparison between the two camps in this matter.

    July 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterleif olson

    Oprah Winfrey wants to do things I agree with. It would be untenable, of course, for me to admit that the way she goes about achieving those things might be fundamentally wrong.

    This is, in fact, the obvious motivation behind all the feeble attempts that people made to justify this donation (if it had been Rush Limbaugh's $10,000, would anyone have even considered putting forth (2)-(4), hindsight aside?).

    It is indicative of a problem that goes far, far deeper than the current political crisis. These people have a fundamental misunderstanding of the core tenets on which the country was founded: this was intended to be a country of laws and not of men, where we have rules that apply to everyone, and we take it seriously that we do not make excuses for our friends, regardless of the perceived benefit to us. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten this article of faith. It's understandable: all serious, fair legal systems throughout history have been radical at their introduction, properly appreciated only by a few people, and requiring of massive public education to really stick. While it seems to be deeply ingrained in human nature to make rules, and to be fair *most* of the time, it seems to be as deeply ingrained that our first thought when the rules impact us negatively is not 'does the rule apply,' but 'how can I make it look like it doesn't?' If we've really forgotten that basic principle of American democracy, we're headed off the cliff.

    July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEwan

    Simply put, if you can't vote in the election, you shouldn't be able to attempt to influence it. Neither groups, (unions, corporations, AARP, NRA, etc.), nor outside parties, (Oprah, foreign countries, etc.), should be able to attempt to influence elections in which they should have "no say", AS, they have no vote!!...Simple rule!!...Simple application!... The LONE exception to that rule is that a NATIONAL political party can provide funds to elections with the DISTINCT STIPULATION that the funds they receive from donors, (again, only registered U.S. INDIVIDUAL voters!), MAY NOT be earmarked for a particular candidate or cause, but may only be a donation to the overall political party! Local political parties can receive funds from their LOCAL registered voters!... That should ensure a reasonable level of transparency, while keeping MOST corruption out of our democratic processes, (while still complying with Constitutional rights to free speech, which personally, I believe has NOTHING TO DO with donations, but which others disagree with!)...And thanks to the Supreme Court, we need an amendment that spells this out!!...

    July 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertodd

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