On Political Books

January/February 2012 The Campaign-Industrial Complex

Political reform will never happen until candidates and donors realize they’re being ripped off.

By Walter Shapiro

The depressing result is twentyfirst- century electoral politics—where money talks and everyone else listens. Is this political fundraising system completely impervious to nonlegislative change? Maybe, just maybe, demanding that c ampaigns publicly release the i r cont rac tua l a r - rangements with consultants could put the brakes on the current hyperinflation in the cost of running for major public office. The press certainly lacks the power to obtain these records, and campaigns themselves are unlikely to practice voluntary disclosure beyond what is required by the FEC. But there is one group that may have the market power to change the way that campaigns conduct their internal financial business. Wealthy ideological givers in both parties who live outside the Washington lobbying community should have no incentive to see their money blown on overpaid and underperforming political consultants. Such donors would not tolerate this sort of hidden insider dealing when supporting an art museum or a university. Why should they be any less responsible in their political philanthropy?

This is not a panacea, just a way to begin to bend the cost curve of politics. Believe it or not, there probably is a ceiling on the amount of money that can be effectively spent on political campaigns. Both Meg Whitman and Linda McMahon squandered nearrecord amounts on their 2010 campaigns and still lost despite the GOP tidal wave. Despite spending more than $100 million (or about $200 per vote), Michael Bloomberg won reelection to a third term with just 51 percent support. Putting aside these self-funders (plus the star-crossed Jon Corzine), the evidence suggests that many senators and congressmen in both parties are frustrated with the insatiable demands of the permanent fund-raising campaign. Maybe someday enough of them will rebel against constantly calling strangers whose names appear on fund-raising call sheets and demand that their high-priced consultants construct a winning campaign for less money.

Like Lessig, I despair over our current dollar-driven deadlock of democracy. And like Lessig, I may be guilty of clutching at straws in my hopes for even incremental change. But the ultimate responsibility for the current system lies with elected officials from Barack Obama to the Tea Party zealots who dominate the freshman class in Congress.

They are the ones who “approve this message” on shrill, deceitful, and often ineffective campaign spots. They are the ones who have allowed themselves to be convinced that making the moral compromises demanded by the current fund-raising system is their only way to return to office. And too often, they are the ones who have been played for suckers by their campaign consultants. In fact, maybe we can start of a rebellion by major donors and candidates united under the banner “I am not a schnook.”

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Walter Shapiro , a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a special correspondent for the New Republic and writes for Yahoo. He is currently covering his ninth presidential campaign.


  • janinsanfran on February 04, 2012 12:01 PM:

    That just might be one of the most lucid descriptions of what's wrong with our democracy that I've ever read.

    The other constraint that will eventually tend to break up the current system is the spread of niche "information" systems in which we all live in personalized information bubbles. Hard to see how this broadcast model translates to that world.

  • school grants on July 26, 2012 5:05 AM:

    The other constraint that will eventually tend to break up the current system is the spread of niche school grants
    "information" systems in which we all live in personalized information bubbles.