Many of the commentariat have been pontificating on what Citizens United will do to American politics. Let’s work backwards:
First, ask yourself what money does to the dynamics of democratic elections. It amplifies a candidate’s reach and permits them to manage the public debate. A well funded candidate will find it far easier to: 1) clarify their message, 2) decry their opponent’s (or opponents’) position(s), and 3) take control of public perception of the debate itself. In addition, it permits them extra latitude to correct and paper over their missteps.
Second, consider how this changes the role that human design plays in political campaigning. Idiots like Pete Hoekstra aside, most campaign gaffes happen on the stump—NOT in carefully-crafted political ads. A well-funded candidate can afford better, more frequent focus groups and more advertising consulting. Moneyed candidates can afford to put most of their message on the air, while keeping their public appearances safe to to the point of banality. What’s more, these candidates have the resources to control public events even more tightly.
In short, the new cash influx reduces the importance of once-basic campaign skills.
- Can’t do soaring political rhetoric? Don’t worry—we’ll fix it in post-production! Add a soaring eagle, “America the Beautiful,” and one of these bad boys in the background, and you’ll make Teddy Roosevelt look like a junior high debate team captain. When you’re on the stump, just shake hands and smile.
- Uh-oh. Handshaking a bit too strenuous for your set of social skills? Can’t bond with voters to save your life? Don’t sweat it. We’ll buy a few popular surrogates from the party’s minor league system. They’ll press the flesh for you. They’ll even help you make your convictions clearer when you’re forced to speak off the cuff.
- But how can they clarify if you’re not sure what you believe? That’s the best part! You don’t need specific convictions if you have money. A tide of greenbacks can swallow just about any hypocrisy whole. Throw enough dollars at the problem, and you might even be able to swamp the considered perception that you’re using dollars to compensate for your lack of substance.
What sorts of candidates would we expect to succeed in this campaign environment? When you replace ideas and effective personal rhetoric with the muscle of modern advertising, you increasingly transform democratic politics into a technical problem. Under this campaign financing regime, candidates wouldn’t need to be likable, thoughtful, substantive, persuasive, or inspiring. Those qualities would become completely superfluous. Sound like anyone you know?