Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Bear Market for Ideas

Early in his primary campaign, Barack Obama indicated that if his Republican opponent opted into the public financing system for the general election, he would follow suit. In a highly publicized decision last week, Obama decided to forgo public financing. In a column for the Atlantic, Reihan Salam uses Obama's decision as point of entry to a general condemnation of campaign finance regulation. I've written on this topic before (here, as well as several other occasions), and don't want to rehash everything I've said previously, but I do think Salam's column merits a response. Salam cites examples like Stewart Mott contributing massive amounts of money to Eugene McCarthy as laudable examples of civic participation. I have a number of objections to this line of thinking. For one it strikes me as a terrible subversion of the one person, one vote principle. For another, it seems inconceivable that massive contributions would not alter the behavior of politicians (Salam's attempt to brush this off as a "theory" in the same sense that the Loch Ness Monster is a theory is cute, if not perhaps the mark of someone engaging in an honest discussion). But my previous posts on this topic cover those objections pretty well. Instead I'd like to consider a basic premise of Salam's column and of the campaign finance discussion in general: the money is somehow fundamental to (or even indistinguishable from) political speech.

The basic point of raising all of this money is to pay for television advertising. This is no secret, and Salam's absurd vision of candidates launching nationwide chains of day-care providers aside, this assertion is unlikely to elicit much objection. I think it is critically important to frame the debate in this manner. To refer to the money as being for political speech makes it sound considerably grander than it really is. It is really money to bankroll TV ads. To be sure, TV ads can be a form of political speech. But they make up a very narrow category, and one with some rather noteworthy characteristics. Think about the most important and memorable political TV ads. Like this one. Or this one. Or this. And this. And this. (As an aside, I would have included the Clinton 3 A.M. ad, but it has apparently, and remarkably, vanished from the internet now that Hillary has dropped out.) When we talk about campaign finance, we are not discussing political speech writ large, we're discussing a very narrow subcategory of political speech that consists almost entirely of non-substantive, emotionally manipulative, and often misleading, but objectively speaking highly-effective, advertising. This sort of political speech is representative of the "marketplace of ideas" only in the same sense that Stephen Colbert has decided that global warming is real because the success of Al Gore's movie indicates that the market has spoken.

Certainly the Obama model of fundraising, garning small contributions from a huge base of donors, is an improvement over the traditional big donor approach. Some of the concern over influence is abated when the contributor base is more diffuse. But the sums of money involved have only increased in this cycle (in fact, more money has already been raised than was spent in total in 2004), and that itself represents a loss for the civic dialogue. A debate conducted via TV advertising is an impoverished debate. Even Barack Obama's message is necessarily infantilized by translation to ad format. As Matt Yglesias noted of Obama's first general election ad, the message boils down to: "My mom is white! And I'm from America!" If this is our marketplace of ideas, it's pretty clearly a bear market.

I recognize that TV advertising is an important tool for candidates. It's one of the only ways for them to directly reach a mass audience to answer attacks and spread their message. The Obama ad, for example, is probably quite necessary given the breadth of the campaign of misinformation that has already been waged against him. It's a tricky problem, and I don't plan to offer any easy solutions here. But I do think we need to be clear about what we're discussing, and in the discussion of campaign finance regulation I think we can do without any grandstanding about the cherished role of political speech. The sort of political speech we cherish is not the sort that gets funded by this money.

Update (6/23): This amusing Slate video on cookie-cutter political ads seems rather appropriate to this discussion.

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