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One Lesson Not to Take From the Midterms

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Tuesday's big partisan swing has pundits and public alike asking: So, what's the lesson?

With a sea of money sloshing through the campaigns, but not necessarily bringing the biggest spenders into office, some might be tempted to suggest money doesn't matter after all.

Big mistake.

And it's one Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, made recently on NPR's On the Media. Specifically, the question posed in the segment was whether money can buy elections. The Freakonomics brand is all about using surprising data to cleverly refute popular assumptions, and, true to form, Dubner said no. According to research by, among others, his Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, outspending your opponent actually has a very minor effect on election outcomes.

But Dubner misses what matters most. The fact that the bigger spender isn't necessarily the victor has been known for some time. But while money may not always buy electoral victory (as Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina both found out, very expensively, in California) it does something even worse: It buys candidates.

Outside of the independently super-rich, that money comes mainly from large corporations with large corporate interests.  Let's be clear: When these corporate entities give money to political candidates, it's not a donation -- it's an investment. The winner of an election, whether he outspends his opponent or not, feels beholden to the interests that got him elected. It's precisely that sense of dependency on your underwriters that corrupts the system. After all, if that candidate wants to get reelected, he or she is unlikely to turn against those funders, and so the unhealthy cycle continues.

Certainly the underwriters get it: A recent poll by Zogby International showed that "according to nine in ten business leaders surveyed, corporate America contributes to political campaigns to gain access to influence the legislative process; to avoid adverse legislative consequences; or to promote a certain ideological position." Yet even among these influencers "(51%) disagree that corporations, unions, and trade associations should give unlimited and undisclosed contributions to other organizations to be spent on campaign advertisements."

And there's another way big-money private financing of elections perverts democracy. It's a very practical one. The need to spend massively, even if not as much as your opponent, means our legislators are spending roughly one-third of their time in office, not working for us, the people, but raising money instead. Instead of being lawmakers, the system turns them into fundraisers.

Just as perverse: Our high-priced elections also deny us just the kind of leader we most need now -- fresh-thinking, smart, committed, feet-on-the ground folks who might just live next door. The need for big bucks, again, even if not THE biggest, blocks keeps untold number of such talented -- but not money-connected -- leaders from ever having a chance to run. They can't afford the price of admission.

The three states with public financing of elections for their legislation have proven the transformative effects of giving regular citizens a chance to lead. In Maine, for example, Deb Simpson, a single mother and former waitress was able to run for the legislature in 2000 and win. (See the video about Deb below.) She's so respected that she's been re-elected four times and has served on the state's judiciary committee; now she's a leader on the environment. Can anyone imagine Mike Bloomberg having won in New York if he'd been a bus driver instead of a billionaire?

The Supreme Court's recent ruling, allowing for unlimited corporate campaign contributions, has opened the floodgates to a system already awash in big money. The good news is that legislation like Maine's could start loosening the grip of corporate money. A bill already exists, with 166 co-sponsors in the House! The Fair Elections Now Act has passed the House Administrative committee and could go to a vote if enough citizens get behind it.

Dubner makes some flip and frankly bizarre comparisons -- calling current levels of campaign spending "pitifully small" compared to what Americans probably spend on chewing gum. But this is serious, really serious, and the quantity of money is only part of the problem. Regardless of whether money is the deciding factor in most elections, in a contest between two corporately funded candidates, we all lose.

So, does money buy elections? It's the wrong question, distracting us from the deeper corrupting influence that money unarguably has. Money makes politicians beholden to outside interests, distracts them from their jobs, and shuts good people out. What Dubner misses and what all this adds up to is the death of trust -- the lifeblood of democracy --  and that's the one thing money can't buy.

(Below is a short video about Deb Simpson and the powerful effect of clean elections from Invisible Hand Media. And we can each weigh in right now at FairElectionsNow.org for a democracy that answers to us.)

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (March 2010) and 17 other books, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet. Small Planet Institute Contributing Writer Stefan Sirucek contributed editorial support. Find more on living democracy at the Small Planet Institute.

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