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Worse Than it Looks? How to Depict Big Money in Politics.

Brennan Center fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy delves into the world of big money in politics to explain how we perceive and misperceive the issue.

February 24, 2014

When big money in politics is the problem we are trying to understand, how do we perceive and misperceive the issue? If Norm Ornstein is right and it’s worse than it looks, then it must be pretty bad. Even when we can just catch a glimpse of the issue – from the barrage of distorting ads paid for with secretive dark money, to the reluctance of quality candidates to throw their hat in the ring, to low voter registration rates, to cynicism – it seems pretty awful. 

We are all familiar with the fable of the blind men and the elephant. The blind man who sits on the elephant’s back thinks it’s a mountain; the one hugging his leg mistakes it for the trunk of a tree; the one touching his tusk misperceives that it is a spear. Only the person who can step back and see the whole thing understands that it’s really a big modern mastodon. The blind men and the elephant is a useful heuristic for the limits of perception. After all, when you can only perceive a small part of an issue, you may misjudge its scope entirely.

Lest I be accused of making a subtle jab at the GOP’s mascot the elephant, let’s choose a different animal. So don’t think of an elephant; think of a lion. How blind men perceive the dangerousness of the lion depends on where they stand in relationship to it. 

  • The small dollar donor who feels the lion’s tail may mistake it for a velvet rope — keeping him out of the fancy high-priced club that characterizes the modern perpetual campaign.  
  • Campaign consultants who get rich from privately financed campaigns snuggle into the lion’s mane thinking it is a plush pillow that will keep them warm and happy. 
  • Political parties feel the lion’s claws and judge correctly that they are weapons, but it is unclear whether the weapons can be deftly deployed against opponents or if the claws will rip them limb from limb.
  • Voters standing a few feet away who hear the lion’s deafening roar reason that the sound is loud, angry and unappealing and disengage (or ask whether the lion comes with a mute button.)
  • A candidate who feels the strength of the lion’s jaws is worried, but before the candidate can warn the other blind men of the danger, the lion eats him and starts eyeing the other blind men hungrily.

People can disagree about campaign finance reform. People can even disagree about the aptness of my big money lion metaphor. But, as we move to campaign finance rules that are more akin to those that were operative in the Gilded Age, thanks to deregulatory decisions — like Citizens United, Speech Now, and perhaps in a month or two McCutcheon v. FEC — we may need to revive some of that period’s metaphors. In the Gilded Age, the metaphor for Standard Oil’s impact on politics was an octopus with many sucking tentacles touching multiple statehouses and Washington. Whether it’s a lion or an octopus, or stampeding donkeys and elephants, big money in politics holds dangers for our democracy now just as it did then. 

The snap shot of our democracy is not all gloom and doom. On the positive side, voter turnout in presidential election years has been trending upwards since 1964. And smaller donors can pack more of punch thanks to the ease of giving online and even by text message, as well as participation in public financing at the state and local level that match low dollar donations. And millennials who are coming of age seem, despite all adversity, to value community engagement and still have their idealism largely intact.  

But the big money lion is still out there roaming, uncaged. And sooner or later, just as we had to deal with the Standard Oil octopus, we’re going to have to deal with our modern day lion before he does irreparable damage to things we value in democracy like good candidates, strong political parties, and engaged voters, who want more than just an endless loop of negative political ads from dubious sources.


The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.