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Opinion | Campaign funds, advertising should educate voters

Kiel's Commentary

By Kiel Hawk
On November 5, 2012

On Aug. 4, 2011 Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois was asked in an interview on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"s what he would fundamentally change about the American political system in order to make it more efficient. His answer without hesitation... "Campaign financing."

After the election today, the political debates are obviously not going to go away, but it will be nice to be able to watch a television show, visit a website or drive down the street without encountering an onslaught of campaign advertisements. This year they have been inescapable.

It has not always been this way, and there seems to be a lot of truth in the sentiment that reform in the way campaigns are financed could go a long way toward fixing a political system that has become more interested in finger-pointing and partisanship than solving problems.

Around $6 billion was spent on campaigns this year, an amount that broke the 2008 record-setting amount of $5.4 billion. You might ask, what is the problem with being able to donate directly to a group that funds political campaigning?

The problem is that this is creating a political marketplace in which politicians necessarily need to sell their souls to special interest groups that fund their campaigns, because the importance of raising money for political campaigns has been well documented. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outspending other congressional candidates in 2004 resulted in victory rates of 90 percent and 80 percent for the House of Representatives and Congress, respectively.

Unfortunately, it seems like things may get worse before they get better. The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that now allows groups and individuals to donate to campaigns without limit has led to the formation of several super PACs, and they were significant contributors to both campaigns this year. By mid-summer, Restore Our Future alone had spent more than 50 million on Romney's campaign. As of last week, super PACs had spent upwards of $530 million cumulatively according to The Wall Street Journal.

While the Supreme Court deemed it a restriction of freedom of speech to limit the amount of money that can be spent on campaigns, this seems to only drive the country further away from the democracy that the government is supposed to be upholding.

With access to media and spreading of political propaganda already controlled by those who have the money for it, it's not difficult to argue that continuing trends of uncontrolled spending on campaigns only perpetuates the problems of an already plutocratic system.

I'm not sure what the answers are, but as always, the first step towards solution is clearly identifying problems. Along these lines, there is an upside to the massive campaign spending, and that is that it promotes discourse and public awareness about social and political issues.

As much as I dislike the relentless campaign ads, it's great to see passionate political debates on Internet forums and elsewhere because that means we are hopefully reasoning our way toward something better. Expectations are that voter turnout for this presidential election will be high, and surely the in-your-face campaigns have played a role in that.

However, there has to be a better way of going about educating citizens on such issues, engaging them in politics and encouraging them to cause change rather than stirring up emotion by turning politics into an "us and them" struggle.

There is something to democracy, and there is a reason to work together. Having an electoral system in which it is necessary to raise more money than the other candidate is not democratic, and it doesn't seem like a road we should be traveling down as a nation.

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