Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from a Karl Rove-affiliated conservative political group, Crossroads GPS, to maintain the anonymity of its donors.
Crossroads is a so-called “dark money” group; that is, by the nature of its legal incorporation, it has been able to keep its donors secret—although that’s likely to be changing soon. Of course, Crossroads is not the only such dark-money outfit; there are many others, and they have big money. In fact, according to one estimate, the fifteen largest dark-money groups spent $800 million on elections from 2010 to 2016.
Now perhaps this darkness, at least, will soon be coming into the light. And that’s a good thing, because Americans should be able to see the forces that are shaping their politics. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote back in 1913, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
So are we finally gaining transparency on “money in politics”? And, more broadly, are we coming better to understand how the powerful use their power?
Yes, but only a little. The purpose of financial disclosure is so that the hands of those pulling the political strings will be visible to the public. The thought is that we might not be able to stop the rich and powerful from exerting disproportionate influence on politics, but at least we should be aware of what they’re doing. And yet in truth, even with this latest court ruling, we stand to gain only a tiny bit more understanding.
We can pause to observe that it was, indeed, a step forward when the Federal Election Commission (FEC), founded in 1975, started keeping track of direct donations to candidates. And so today, anyone can see the FEC data on a user-friendly website such as OpenSecrets.org. That site tells us, for example, that $6.3 billion was spent on federal elections in 2016, and itemizes the origin of all those funds.
Yet a moment’s reflection tells us that the sum total of “official” spending on campaigns—that which is measured by the FEC—doesn’t come close to all the “unofficial” spending on campaigns. Yes, we should step back and think about all the forces that are designed to affect our thinking on politics and issues; that is, all the advertising, all the press releases, all the news in the media. That’s what would give us the full picture.
Indeed, even the news itself is the product of someone’s design. Why is this story played more prominently than that story—or why is that story played not at all? Back in 1979, the sociologist Herbert Gans published Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time, a book analyzing, in granular detail, the daily decision-making processes of Big Media. Unsurprisingly, Gans discovered that Manhattan media gatekeepers viewed the world through the prism of … Manhattan. And we know what that means.
So if we consider all the many entities that seek to shape our thinking and thus shape our votes, we can see that the official government calculations barely scratch the surface. We can quickly say that this is not the FEC’s fault; its mandate is to monitor direct election spending, and that’s what it does. Yet the indirect spending might be just as important. And the FEC doesn’t measure that at all.
To illustrate, let’s consider five specific examples of “money in politics” that don’t fall under the purview of the FEC, and thus aren’t measured. As we shall see, that amount of indirect spending dwarfs what the FEC tracks.
But first, a preface: Virgil is not accusing anyone of doing anything illegal. He will assume, in good faith, that all the activities, at least as described here, are fully on the right side of the law. (So no need for anyone to bring in their lawyers.)
However, at the same time, Virgil is reminded of the wise old Washington, D.C., saying, “The real scandal isn’t what’s illegal. The real scandal is what’s legal.” So yeah, let’s consider whether or not there’s a legal scandal ongoing, right before our eyes.
Indeed, the problem has been building up for quite a while. Way back in 1960, John F. Kennedy nailed it when he said, “A dry rot, beginning in Washington, is seeping into every corner of America … the confusion between what is legal and what is right.” To Virgil, that seems like a good distinction: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean we have to think it’s good.
We must also stipulate, in advance, that the First Amendment protects free speech, including political speech. Thus it’s fully right and proper for everyone to have his or her say, especially in regard to choosing our leaders.
Still, it’s surely also the case that the political discourse benefits from transparency—that is, knowing the nature of those who dominate the discourse. We’ve learned the hard way, for example, not to trust social media, including Facebook. And so now we should also know how much is being spent in the battle for our minds.
So, now to the five examples of political impact: first, mass mailings and e-mailings; second, big foundation money; third, big institutional money; fourth, media bias; and fifth, foreign money.
First, on September 19, Virgil got an e-mail from Michelle Obama. More precisely, Virgil got an e-mail from a computer at Change.org, on behalf of her group, WhenWeAllVote.org. Now Virg has never donated a penny to either of these groups, and so he doesn’t even know how he got on the mailing list. But here he is, getting a pitch from Mrs. O. And while he has no plans on responding, he might still ask: How much is it worth to the Democrats to have the former First Lady, herself an active Democrat, blasting out GOTV e-mails? Indeed, Mrs. Obama seems to be quite active these days on the campaign trail; on September 23, for example, she’ll be in Las Vegas on behalf of When We All Vote. In that appearance, don’t be surprised if Mrs. Obama makes it clear whom she prefers in Nevada’s upcoming midterm election.
Yet as far as the FEC is concerned, all this is fine. And okay, maybe it is fine, legally. But still, it’s a huge boost to the Democrats, politically.
Second, in 2017, George Soros announced that he was giving $18 billion to his Open Society Foundations. Now all that money is legally “non-political,” but ask yourself: Do Soros recipients, including the ACLU, Media Matters, and the Center for American Progress (CAP), have any influence on the media and legal environment? And thus have an impact on politics? Of course they do.
In particular, we might pause over the president of CAP, Neera Tanden. She’s a veteran Democratic politico, including having a stint at the Obama White House. In fact, her Twitter homepage features the words “Resist” and an emoji of a blue wave. And the “pinned tweet” at the top of her feed sure looks like a political pitch: “A reminder: we are living in historic times. Your grandchildren will ask you what you did for the country during the Trump era. Do something to make them proud of your answer. November is coming.” To Virgil’s ears, that’s a sharp partisan call to arms, but okay, maybe a lawyer said it was fine.
Third, let’s talk about another well-funded institution not tracked by the FEC: Planned Parenthood. In 2014, the group boasted a budget of $1.3 billion. That much money can have a lot of impact, and not just on unborn children.
Indeed, Planned Parenthood seems to fit in well with other left-leaning groups; for example, just on September 19, Politico reported that two sisters in Indiana, Deborah Simon and Cynthia Simon-Skjodt, heirs to a shopping-mall fortune, have given millions to Planned Parenthood, even as they also donate hugely to numerous Democratic causes.
Fourth, we come to our old friend, media bias. How does one begin to put a dollar value on media coverage that’s routinely 90 percent anti-Republican, including the Republican president—whoever it is? How much is the endless MSM barrage worth to the Democrats?
For instance, to take an almost random example, we might contemplate the differential between the coverage of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the coverage of Rep. Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, who stands accused of outright domestic violence. Both men are (or were) up for important posts—Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and Ellison for the attorney generalship of Minnesota—and yet the coverage, and the tone, are all out of proportion.
To help illustrate this disproportionality—Kavanaugh in the news, always; Ellison, eerie silence—we can look to The Twin Cities Pioneer Press (formerly the St. Paul Pioneer Press), the second largest newspaper in Minnesota. It’s also the hometown newspaper of Keith Ellison. And yet the news-drought on Ellison in that newspaper has been so severe that the last direct item on Ellison was a September 14 letter to the editor, in which one Elaine Cownie asked, “Where is the outrage about the Democrats sticking with their nominee, Keith Ellison?” Continuing, Cownie added, “I have seen nothing in the press to indicate that there is even an investigation into this matter.” Fortunately, there was actually never nothing in the press—Breitbart News, for instance, had a report on Ellison on September 18—there’s just nothing in the local paper. And finally, the drought in the Pioneer Press came to an end on September 20–in the wake of new evidence, and also in the wake of a statewide televised debate between Ellison and his Republican opponent, Doug Wardlow.
Fifth, there’s the issue of foreign money. Here’s a headline, from August 24, to chew on: “Chinese Communist Party Funds Washington Think Tanks.” The article mentions a slew of eminent D.C. institutions receiving money from the People’s Republic of China, including the School of Advanced International Studies, the Brookings Institution, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And oh yes, our friends at Neera Tanden’s CAP.
Once again, let’s assume that all these outfits are properly lawyered up, and so there’s nothing for the FEC—or the FBI—to worry about, at least under current law. Yet applying the simple rule of common sense, we can observe that of course this Chinese money is going to have a political impact. Of course there will be academic studies taking China’s side on, for example, trade issues. So of course China’s prestige will be raised—and so of course the Chinese will likely get what they’re paying for.
To look at these five categories is to realize just how much of a financial advantage is enjoyed by the left and the Democrats. And there are plenty more categories, as well as a near-infinity of outrageous examples.
Thus we can see: All those billions, even trillions, are going to reinforce left-leaning and Democratic arguments. And so even if it’s legal, it still ought to be measurable. That is, we should have a better handle on actual dollar amounts, as opposed to just the vaguest of guesstimates.
Admittedly, to state the challenge in these terms is to underscore its difficulty. That is, without a doubt it will be difficult to measure the cost, and the impact, of all that direct mail, of all that foundation spending, of all that institutional spending, of all that media bias, of all that foreign money.
Yet it’s still worth doing.
Fortunately, exactly this sort of work has been done before, on an even larger scale. Back in the middle of the 20th century, the economist Wassily Leontief developed an input-output model for the U.S. economy that sought to measure everything going in and everything going out. Leontief wasn’t seeking to control the economy, he was simply seeking to understand it. For his work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973.
So this is what we need now: an input-output model for politics. There’s no need for the government to be involved in any of this; the FEC, for example, can continue to focus on direct campaign spending, and other agencies can tend to normal law enforcement. Yet the citizenry still ought to have the right to know what’s being spent, indirectly, on politics.
It’s a good thing that political “dark money” is being brought to light. Now let’s bring all political spending into the light.