Don't Be a Grinch About 'Money in Politics'
T’is the season of giving and Americans sure know how. The average American plans to spend $660 on Christmas gifts this year. An estimated $1 trillion will be spent by January 1st—for the first time in the history of U.S. business.
And it’s not just direct spending. Retailers will spend billions in advertising dollars to get us in the store or shopping online.
But if Christmas toy commercials and snow-filled movie trailers were replaced with political ads, then gleeful carolers would be replaced by shrill outrage. Anti-speech liberals would lament the rise of “money in politics,” turning to the government for a solution to the “problem” of Americans exercising their rights to share their ideas and seek support to spread them far and wide.
Election 2016’s final price tag—the largest in U.S. history—fell just short of $7 billion for all federal elections. Americans will spend about 150 times more on Christmas cards and stuffed teddy bears than we spent on politics during what many describe as the most consequential election of the 21st century.
Why isn’t the Left condemning toy companies for buying full-page ads and burying us with catchy slogans?
The New York-based Brennan Center, a left-wing nonprofit, recently criticized our “broken campaign finance system” and advocated for “stronger campaign contribution limits.” The group even publicly vilifies “exceptionally large contributions”—without providing specifics on what constitutes a “large contribution.” (Meanwhile, it enjoys the revenue stream provided by undisclosed billionaire donors.)
Jared Bernstein, a former Obama official, has gone so far as to claim American democracy is “infected” by high-dollar political donations. Would he say the same about George Soros or Tom Steyer?
Their Buddy-the-Elf hysterics miss the point. Our political system is built on the electorate’s vote—just like corporate America answers to consumers. When you are faced with a new beer commercial or Christmas-themed YouTube ad, you have a choice: Watch or ignore. Strip away the slogans and the jingles, and commercial advertising is simply information created to elicit a reaction. By marketing to you, a company presents a choice: Buy or not.
But that choice rests with us. You’ll tune in or you won’t. You’ll click “Place Order” or you won’t. There is no boogeyman forcing you to keep watching the same channel or stop scrolling through Facebook.
The same goes for political advertising. These ads are an integral part of our democratic system, in which information is conveyed to voters who choose between two or more candidates. More often than not, you’ll discover where a particular candidate stands on tax policy or social issues through an ad.
The real question becomes: Do we really want the federal government—any government—to control our speech? Do we want Washington bureaucrats to approve one ad while rejecting another?
Will anti-speech liberals decide which Star Wars trailer is permissible and which isn’t? Should a Mercedes commercial be condemned as “foreign speech,” and banned in America?
The anti-speech movement is grounded in a single demeaning assumption: You little Who’s in Whosville are too stupid to think for yourselves. Their solution is for the government to become the Elf on the Shelf of political speech—always watching, ready to pounce if you’re naughty. As adults, we should be offended by liberal scolds who consider us incapable of thinking for ourselves.
The next time you see a holiday commercial, watch it or ignore the noise. The next time you see a 2018 political ad, vote for the candidate or not.
That’s always been your choice. We could do with less Elf-on-the-Shelf from the government and more individual freedom to make our own decisions—about Christmas gifts or political candidates.
Dan Backer is a veteran campaign counsel, having served more than 100 candidates, PACs, and political organizations. He is founding attorney of political.law, a campaign finance and political law firm in Alexandria, Virginia.