Elon Musk Takes Over Twitter, Can We Stop Wasting Time on Campaign Finance Reform?

10/28/2022 8:13am

There is an old saying that intellectuals have a hard time with new ideas. The pursuit of campaign finance reform by many progressives is probably the best example of this difficulty.

Many progressives have argued for the urgency of getting money out of politics to prevent the corrupting influence of major corporations and generic rich people on the political process. They are absolutely right to call attention to how money corrupts democracy, but their proposed solution is a complete dead end, as Mr. Musk has tried to show us.

First of all, we all know at this point that we have a Supreme Court that wants to do everything it can to promote the interests of the rich. They have ruled repeatedly that efforts to limit political contributions from the rich are unconstitutional restrictions on speech.

We can yell all we like about the absurdity of this position, but that is what six justices on the Supreme Court say, and that is all that matters. Yeah, one day the six right-wing justices will leave the court, and if we are lucky and have a Democratic president, and Mitch McConnell doesn’t control the Senate, they can appoint people who want to protect democracy. Of course, that day could be well into the second half of the century.

Oh yeah, we can pack the court, have a Democratic president pick six new justices. That’s a great plan for the 22nd century. If we want to be serious, we are going to have to live with a Supreme Court that will block serious efforts at limiting political contributions for the foreseeable future.

But apart from the political obstacles to campaign finance reform, Musk’s takeover of Twitter should have made the irrelevance of such efforts completely clear to anyone who didn’t see it already. Let’s suppose that we somehow manage to limit how much the rich and very rich can contribute to political campaigns, do we have a plan to prevent billionaire fascists like Rupert Murdoch from setting up television networks? Do we have a plan to keep a right-wing jerk like Musk from taking over a major social media platform?

Unless we have a plan to keep people with clear political agendas from owning major media outlets, which would almost certainly violate the First Amendment as anyone understands it, we will not be keeping money out of politics. After all, if we keep rich people from buying ads for their favored candidates, but they get to own newspapers, television networks, and social media platforms that push their candidates, and trash their opponents, 24-7 in “news” segments, have we accomplished anything?

That point should have been pretty obvious long ago, but for whatever reason it has not sunk in. Yes, political ads can be effective and make a difference in campaigns, but if we can somehow limit how many ads the rich can buy, did we think they would just slink away and stop trying to influence politics?

Unfortunately for progressives, the rich will not be as stupid as we might want them to be. If we close off one channel for them to use their money, they will look to use other channels, as Musk is now doing.

There Is an Alternative: Equalize Up

Fortunately, there is another route. If we can’t keep the rich from spending endless money to corrupt politics, we can give the masses the means to compete.  

The basic story is to give ordinary people some amount of money to contribute to the candidates they support. This is not a far out idea. Seattle has been doing this for several years in its local races with its “democracy vouchers.” These vouchers give voters $100 to contribute to candidates in local elections, who agree to certain restrictions on contributions and spending. Candidates who agree to these terms, and can garner substantial support, can get enough money to be competitive.

Other states and cities have gone a similar route with “super-matches” of small contributions. For example, a New York City program provides for public support that can be as much as eight times a small donor’s contribution, for candidates that agree to restrictions on donations and spending. These sorts of programs can be extended and expanded, where the political support for implementation exists.

There is also the problem of the media. After all, it will be hard to get people to support progressive candidates if the only thing they ever see on television or the Internet is some fantasy scandal involving Hunter Biden.

We can go the same route here, give money to the average person to support the media outlet of their choice. There are several proposals currently being pushed along these lines.[1] While none of us individually can hope to match the influence that an Elon Musk can buy with his $200 billion, 70 million, people with a voucher of $200 each, can spend $14 billion a year pushing out views and news that challenge the rich people’s tall tales. That’s roughly equal to what was spent in total on political campaigns in 2020. This should be sufficient to allow progressive candidates to compete.

It’s also worth noting that we are not talking about ridiculous sums of money for the government. If 200 million people used a $200 voucher to support creative work and/or political campaigns, it would cost $40 billion a year. This is less than 0.8 percent of the federal budget and less than what the government loses each year due to the tax deduction for charitable contributions.

So, we are not talking about crazy amounts of money. Also, even MAGA judges have not generally tried to claim that giving normal people a voice in the political process violates the First Amendment. And, this route has the great advantage that the changes can be implemented piecemeal. We can go state by state, city by city, and look to increase the political power of the masses wherever we can.

To be clear, this is not going to be easy. The deep-red states are not about to support measures that would give ordinary people, and especially Blacks and Latinos, more voice in politics. And even in blue states, such measures will be a serious lift. But this is a route that is viable, unlike trying to directly limit the influence of the rich in politics.

This is also not the only route that can be useful. We do have anti-trust laws on the books, which may be useful in limiting the influence of some media conglomerates. In addition, a repeal of Section 230 may make things a bit more difficult for Elon Musk and his friends.  

But the key point is that we need to be fighting for policies that will make a difference if we win. Fighting for limits on what the rich can spend on political campaigns is a losing effort and serious progressives should have better things to do with their time.

[1] I favor a broader “creative work” tax credit, both because it would be hard to draw lines as to what constitutes “news” and also because this would be a good way to support musicians, writers, and other creative workers.

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