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The Only Antidote to Big Money in Politics Might Be Critical Thinking

by Michael Austin, published

I am not surprised, or even particularly disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision today to abolish some of the limitations on political donations. I can’t imagine it mattering much, given the existing regulations which allow unlimited donations to political action committees that are independent of candidates only by way of legal fiction. And I would rather that people give money directly to candidates, who are required to report donors, than to 501(c)(4) organizations which have no meaningful disclosure requirements.

And, yes, I do agree that unlimited money in political campaigns is not a good thing for the country. But I see no way, realistically, that large amounts of money are not going to be part of the political landscape for the foreseeable future. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that political donations constitute constitutionally-protected speech. We are nowhere near a consensus on

changing the Constitution to permit more rigid donor caps.

Big money has been part of politics for a long time. Now, really big money is here to stay. There is probably nothing that ordinary citizens can do to prevent corporations, political action committees, and really rich people from spending an unlimited amount of money trying to persuade us of things.

But we don’t have to be persuaded. Every one of us can help make political advertising irrelevant by 1) not watching it or 2) not believing it.

The first of these alternatives must involve not watching TV. Personally, this is something that I, as a non-TV watcher, support wholeheartedly. One alternative might be to read books. But we don’t even have to go that far. Our society is quickly evolving away from the static reception of television signals, and therefore, of the advertisements which have dominated political campaigns for fifty years or so.

But something will replace television advertising, and that something will certainly be just as negative, and just as obnoxious as the infamous thirty-second TV spot. Whatever beast might be slouching toward Bethlehem, though, does not have to persuade us. We are capable of approaching political advertising critically. Unfortunately, we do not live in a good environment for critical thinking. For one thing, we have become divided into so many echo chambers that we often forget what an actual argument looks like. Contemporary political rhetoric is designed to do many things — to make us angry, disgusted, upset, afraid, outraged, and depressed. But it is not designed to communicate or support actual arguments.

That’s because most people are not very good at making or supporting actual arguments. We do not demand that politicians make them, nor do we demand that our schools teach students how to make good arguments and critique bad ones. Critical thinking is very difficult to evaluate with standardized bubble sheets, so it often gets pushed out of the curriculum by things considered more important — or at least more measurable. Generally speaking, we have not, as a society, rewarded or encouraged critical thinking about political issues.

And this has consequences.

As much as we like to denounce the influence of money in politics, or the prevalence of negative campaigning, or the extreme partisanship of our discourse, the fact is that we are always going to be offered more of whatever we bought before. And we are always going to get more and more of whatever marketing has worked in the past. This is true of shoes and soda pop, and it is just as true of politicians. Unlimited political donations are probably here to stay. But we have complete control of whether or not they matter.

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