Why Is Matt Taibbi So Obsessed With Campaign Contributions?

I should start this off by saying that I like Matt Taibbi. His coverage of the financial crisis and other political corruption often delves into issues ignored by most media outlets, and his acerbic wit makes for fun reading. Nevertheless, he often fixates on the wrong aspect of the scandal he’s uncovering, and that usually involves focusing on campaign contributions.

In his blog post about the Iowa caucuses, Taibbi yammers on about how contributions corrupt the campaigning process:

“[T]he ugly reality, as Dylan Ratigan continually points out, is that the candidate who raises the most money wins an astonishing 94% of the time in America.

“That damning statistic just confirms what everyone who spends any time on the campaign trail knows, which is that the presidential race is not at all about ideas, but entirely about raising money.”

This is so logically porous that it hardly needs explaining (but that won’t stop me). Implicit in Taibbi’s argument is the assumption that the contributions themselves cannot be a result of the candidate’s message—an assumption that is obviously false.

Ratigan’s statistic would be alarming if political candidates all started with a set amount of money and then someone yelled, “Go!” and they all began campaigning. But that’s not how campaigns work. Political contributions are usually the result of a candidate connecting with supporters, which is what candidates in a democracy are supposed to do. Raising a lot of money isn’t cheating—it’s succeeding.

Of course, when Taibbi uses a statistic like that, he’s conjuring up images of corrupt fat cats funding puppet candidates who kowtow to their every whim. The implication is that the rich pick the candidates:

“And what ends up happening there is that the candidate with the big stack of donor money always somehow manages to survive the inevitable scandals and tawdry revelations, while the one who’s depending on checks from grandma and $25 internet donations from college students always winds up mysteriously wiped out.

“Thus the guy like George W. Bush, who dodged the draft and lied about his National Guard Service, steams to re-election, while a guy like Howard Dean – really not any kind of real threat to the status quo, whose major crimes were being insufficiently pro-war and finding an alternative source of campaign funding on the net – magically falls off the map and is made a caricature after one loony scream before Iowa.”

This is nonsense, and the invocation of Howard Dean is particularly disingenuous. Dean had a lot of flaws as a candidate, but his ability to raise money was not one of them. He shattered fundraising records, and ultimately raised over $50 million, all before dropping out before Super Tuesday. And Dean’s contributions were primarily of the Internet-type that Taibbi assumes are insufficient. Dean didn’t lose because he didn’t have enough money—he lost because people didn’t vote for him.

Of course, not every contribution comes from small internet donations and checks from grandma, and Taibbi is quick to let you know who the big campaign spenders are:

“Obama’s list included all the major banks and bailout recipients, plus a smattering of high-dollar defense lawyers from firms like WilmerHale and Skadden Arps who make their money representing those same banks. McCain’s list included exactly the same banks and similar lists of law firms, the minor difference being that it was Gibson Dunn instead of WilmerHale, etc.

[…]

“Those numbers tell us that both parties rely upon the same core of major donors among the top law firms, the Wall Street companies, and business leaders – basically, the 1%.”

 Again, Taibbi’s implication is that both candidates are beholden to the same group, but the idea that there were no substantive differences between Obama and McCain in 2008 is silly. If you look at the complete list of major donors, you’ll see that Obama got several million dollars from university employees, while McCain got significant contributions from the Army and the Department of Defense—these are far more telling examples of the candidates’ contrastive constituencies than the fact that both got donations from lawyers and bankers.

The reason why the 1% is represented on both list is far simpler than the nefarious reasons Taibbi insinuates: Campaign contributions are essentially a luxury good. People who are unemployed, or who are burdened by student loans, or who have trouble meeting their existing bills, can’t afford to donate large sums of money to political candidates. On the other hand, becoming a major contributor to a politician is a sign of cultural status for the wealthy. It’s a trendy thing to do if you can afford it.

This fact—that certain voters can afford to contribute more to candidates than others—is certainly troubling, and when Taibbi focuses on that his points are more salient, but too often, and in this particular post, he implies that the sheer amount of money candidates raise is the problem.

Finally, the biggest problem with the way Taibbi conducts his argument is the misleading way he declares that “Citigroup gave” or that “Bank of America donated,” as if these banks have minds—and political donations—of their own. In fact, when Taibbi says this he is generally talking about employees of Citigroup or Bank of America. It’s one thing to say these employees are incompetent and overpaid, but it’s another to imply that the only political issues they care about are lower taxes for the rich.

Most of them care about that, sure, but some care about a woman’s right to choose, or ending foreign wars, or securing the borders, or funding public schools, or not funding public schools. In other words, they might have thoughts on the issues candidates actually disagree about. If that’s the case, then the reason employees donated to both candidates might not be because the banks want to keep tabs on all of them, but because some employees supported McCain, and others liked Obama.

Of course, the Citizens United decision will likely affect the way money influences politics, and Taibbi’s post also has a few interesting things to say about that. In general, Taibbi is great at exploring the corrupt implications of overlooked government policy. I wish he’d focus more on that and less on how much money candidates raise.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on January 4, 2012 at 4:51 PM

    Yes; see also Tyler Cowen’s relevant post from last Friday: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/12/does-wealth-equal-power.html

    Reply

  2. This post has a misleading title and is rather meandering; I think the main takeaway is this: “This fact—that certain voters can afford to contribute more to candidates than others—is certainly troubling, and when Taibbi focuses on that his points are more salient, but too often, and in this particular post, he implies that the sheer amount of money candidates raise is the problem.”

    Surely, this sentence is incredibly naive, though: “Political contributions are usually the result of a candidate connecting with supporters.”

    Reply

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