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Smart v. Stupid

The new American politics: Voting with dollars

Money didn’t win the Wisconsin recall for Scott Walker. Wisconsinites voted for, and got, what they wanted. Twice. Still, this election season marks a tipping point for American politics. We are at the moment when money is poised to replace voting as the way that elections are decided.

This is not the first time elected offices were for sale. Around the dawn of the 20th century, local government seats were commonly bought from and sold by local party bosses. We also can’t forget the “company towns” of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In many of them, the mayor and sheriff were officially chosen by the owner of the mine or factory. (These company-owned towns led directly to the formation of labor unions.) And Meg Whitman—lacking any sort of qualifications for the job—recently tried to buy herself a California governorship.

But as far back as I can remember this is the first time that individual people were rich enough to buy their own, pet presidential candidates. Newt Gingrich would have flamed out in 45 days or less without billionaire Sheldon Adelson personally funding his campaign. So the game has clearly changed.

This influence of money pervades both sides. You need only look to how quickly President Obama’s surrogates—Cory Booker, Deval Patrick and even Bill Clinton—morphed into finance industry surrogates when the president took a small stab at vulture capitalism. This mayor, governor and former-president-philanthropist depend heavily on the finance industry. They’d gotten a call, it seems.

Most recently it was Wisconsin, where liberals learned they can no longer simply rely on labor unions to get out the vote. Something more is required.

So if money is more powerful than votes these days, the next election will surely turn on an unprecedented barrage of negative television advertising funded by some really unsavory characters—gambling moguls like Sheldon Adelson and big polluters like the Koch brothers. How can the average American have even a tiny bit of influence?

Well, when money is top dog, so are consumers. Two bright spots in our current politics were successful consumer boycotts of corporations that advertise on hate radio and fund ALEC. Consumers convinced dozens of corporations to fundamentally alter their advertising and corporate giving strategies. Sure, these boycotts weren’t terminally successful, but as strategic works in progress, they provide invaluable lessons about the power of consumerism and Internet organizing.

The future center of liberal activism won’t be labor unions. But it may well be consumer unions. When an Adelson spends $25 million on a Gingrich candidacy, he’s spending money that Joe and Emily originally put in a Sands Casino slot machine. When Bob Perry swiftboats someone, he’s spending dollars that Buck and Irma originally paid for him to build them a home. And when the Koch brothers underwrite a Scott Walker, that money came from Nancy and Ben who bought plywood from Georgia-Pacific or paper towels from Brawny.

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The notable thing about these products is that it is dead easy to make another buying choice. Consumers have other options in almost every town in America for almost every product in America.

So imagine if there was a membership organization, say a Liberal Consumers Union; one that had cheap dues and good communications (like AARP) and kept its 10 or 20 million members apprised of date-specific, time-limited product boycotts. When a company offended a set of standards, the union could give them a deadline to stop, engaging its members to personally contact the company. If that didn’t work, members could hold a time-specific boycott (say 90 days) to give the company a clear downside metric about its politics. Many buyers, I’d imagine, would never go back to the offending product. After a while, conservatives would play too.

That’s great, because in the end, the goal is to blunt the influence of corporate money in politics by making it prohibitively expensive for a business to buy a national, state or local government. The mission is to make sure companies suffer by participating in politics. Few corporations would willingly throw away all of their liberal (or conservative) customers. Most will simply stand aside. Labor unions can run up the cost of playing. But a consumer union can run up the cost of deciding to play. It’s much better leverage.

Still, the emergence of consumerism as a political force is far off. In the meantime, your vote alone isn’t enough. Set aside some money to send to a political candidate you like. Your $10 or $50 or $100 is direct opposition to a similar amount from a corporation. With it, you buy some measure of influence for the average voter. And right now, we could sure use some.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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The future center of liberal activism won’t be labor unions. But it may well be consumer unions.

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