Saturday’s thought experiment: Thinking about the hypothesized corrosive influence of money on politics. Let’s take as a given that income inequality is high and rising. Most people have less money than some people (99/1 or 90/10 or something). Let’s also take as a given that the mechanism of money corroding politics equals campaign donations or advertising, mainly TV commercials.

The presumption is that rich people donate money to candidates who run TV commercials to persuade poor people to vote against their own interests. This despite the fact that poor people outnumber rich people and each person can only vote once. Poor people numerically dominate voting. We assume TV ads funded by campaign money from rich people actually convince poor people to vote against their own interests. But do they?

How do we tell the difference between poor people getting fooled into voting against their own interests versus poor people voting how they want? To believe money has corrosive influence on politics through this mechanism, must we believe that poor people are stupid?

Alternate explanation: Poor people vote how they want, other people don’t approve of their choices, and rich people are wasting their money? How can we tell? Short of assuming that our judgment of how poor people should vote versus how they do vote is prima facie correct?

Meanwhile, how do we feel about people who make top-down judgments about poor people in other political and economic contexts? If one believes poor people are too stupid to vote in their own best interests, in what other areas must they also be judged as stupid?

In case it’s not obvious: I think poor people (and middle-class people) are smarter than many observers and activists think. I say that having grown up in the rural lower-middle-class myself. Poor and middle-class people are frequently patronized.

I think in many areas of policy we have concluded that poor people need to be protected from themselves; I think this is dangerous.

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Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. The corrosive influence of money on democracy isn’t a hypothesis. It’s just that those who write today act as if when they were born the world became a tabula rasa. I’m getting tired if these narcissistic posts.

  2. Middle class people are not middle class because they are smart; they are middle class because their cognitive point of view towards life cycle is middle class.

  3. This demonstrates a shallow understanding of how propaganda works. Setting that aside, though, it also supposes that all these poor people being discussed get to vote on all these hypothetical issues. Everyone knows in this representative democracy that it is our elected representatives who mainly do the governing in all of our behalves. We primarily work our wills in elections by choosing these representatives. This is where unlimited dark money sloshing through the system really does matter.

    Does anyone need another rehash of the correlation between money spent and election success? What is more dangerous, perhaps, than the effect of all these dark dollars in highly visible elections is the potential effect on the elections of unglamorous lower officials and state-wide elections. Consider what might happen if BP oil money could be used to insure the election or defeat of the local judges who made key rulings in the gulf oil spill disaster. As it turned out, there was effort applied to try to select the court of jurisdiction. I shudder.

    As I understand it, while the right was the first to grasp the potential advantage and organize to use this power, the left has now jumped in, too, and is also creating phony LLCs and its own not-for-profit cash-funneling mechanisms. Was it FDR that said organized money is no better than organized crime?

    By reducing the issue to the absurdly simple, as you did, you only created an absurd straw-man argument for unlimited anonymous money in our politics. I think you may come to feel differently about this in time, as you see results in real life that offend you. What about the myth of “clean coal?” There is no such thing, at least not yet, only cleaner coal. The big coal propaganda machine doesn’t admit to any such thing, just so you notice.

    Anyway, I feel you. I just don’t agree with you

  4. I agree with Chrmngblly to a certain extent in that there is something to be said about following the money trail. However, the problem is not necessarily rich vs. poor in the first place. There is the basic assumption that poor people are all poor because they are lazy and/or stupid. While this is true for some, the real problem is that there are more and more apathetic people voting that rely solely on propaganda to make voting decisions. We peer pressure each other into voting and it’s hurting the system. I say no more campaigns at all. If your interested you will look for more information. If you don’t really care, please don’t vote. It’s become a popularity contest because no one wants to hear real news. It’s not exciting enough to gossip about unless you have at least of modicum of intelligence. Like you said though, money is not necessarily indicative of intelligence. That is why it’s not a rich vs. poor problem but an apathetic vs proactive problem. Most people these days are too indifferent about politics.

  5. What is the real issue? God knows, several. For me, there came a time in my life when I really wondered what government “of the people, by the people and for the people” means—and do I believe in it, really? For some of us, renouncing the leadership of wise, benevolent elites in favor of government by the poor, dirty masses does not seem possible or even smart. Me, too, even though that is exactly what Lincoln referred to, and probably so too would the founding fathers, although at the time, they meant to exclude women, slaves and all non-land owners.

    Do we really believe that the “unwashed” over the long haul, on the average, will produce better decisions than any sort of American Aristocracy? I have come to think so. But I also know that every generation has to reaffirm this foolish, illogical mode of government. It is why the supreme court will eventually realize that money is not actually speech and corporations are not, in all senses, real people. “One man, one vote” is a principle that will overcome the right of the rich to have bullhorns in the public square while regular citizens only get what influence God and their vocal chords allow them.

  6. I don’t see people as stupid for being manipulated by advertising. Many people have not been educated in the most basic logic, let alone critical thinking. You’re not born knowing these things. Against that, the propagandists have psychologists working for them to exploit peoples’ scientifically-probed weaknesses. The people have the native intelligence to defend against the propaganda, but are sorely under-armed with mental tools to do it (most of them went to public school, which trains them into authority-worship and other practices that actually make them more susceptible.)

  7. I agree 100 percent! I think the presumption is precisely that “poor people are stupid,” And it’s not just politics … you see the same thing with things like mayor Bloomberg in NY wanting to ban large soft drinks. Bloomberg is smart enough weigh the evidence and come to the conclusion that consuming too many sugary drinks is bad for you, but he doesn’t think the little people have the brains to make their own decisions.


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