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.