Silver and Gold and ‘Citizens United’

Nate Silver, the New York Times electoral forecasting guru, has had a very good year.  The web’s most prolific and celebrated number-cruncher, Silver correctly predicted the winner of this year’s presidential contest in all 50 states and came within 0.1 percent of calculating the breakdown of the popular vote.

Late in the season, as Silver faced increased hostility from Republican and conservative pundits who claimed his forecast was biased in favor of President Obama, Silver proposed a wager to one such critic, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough:  Should Obama win, Scarborough must donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross.  Should Romney win, Silver would do the same.

Silver received a fair amount of scolding for this stunt—New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan called it “inappropriate for a Times journalist,” adding it would provide “ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome”—but also some praise.

Silver justified himself, “[Scarborough] has been on a rant, calling me an idiot and a partisan, so I’m asking him to put some integrity behind it.”  In short:  Put your money where your mouth is.  Dashiell Bennett, writing in the Huffington Post, noted that Silver was “clearly fed up with pundits who aren’t willing to put anything on the line to back up their numerous predictions.”

In asserting the principle that one’s opinions are given real weight when supported by a piece of one’s personal fortune, Silver made the moral case—however unintentionally—for the Supreme Court decision known as “Citizens United.”

This most controversial of cases, officially called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, was the 2008 high court ruling that established that expenditures for “electioneering communications” by corporations and unions were protected under the First Amendment—in effect, that money is a form of free speech and cannot be abridged.

I heartily echo Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, who writes, “I sometimes fantasize about a media landscape where predictions weren’t taken seriously unless the people making them had some personal monetary stake in getting them right.”  Were such a practice introduced, he provocatively asks, “How many pundits would’ve more carefully hedged their Weapons of Mass Destruction predictions?”

The case for Citizens United—and, by extension, for unlimited money in politics—is indeed this question of integrity and intellectual honesty.  If a CEO wants to put the good name of his company behind some candidate or cause, parting ways with a small (or large) pile of treasure in the process, by what possible rationale is such an action less moral than an individual person donating 10 or 20 bucks toward the same ends?

It has been said—loudly—that money is slowly destroying politics and, therefore, government.  That elections are being bought by those who can afford them, i.e. gazillionaires, leaving the common folk with very little power to shape public affairs.

The unspoken, but necessary, assumption here is that our political leaders are prostitutes.  That if, say, the CEO of an oil company offers untold millions to a candidate, he or she has no choice but to accept it and, in so doing, to become an advocate for oil industry-friendly policies, regardless of what the candidate might have pledged his or her constituents.

If we are to accept this state of affairs as inevitable—abandoning the notion that honest politicians exist and dishonest ones can be cast out—then the appropriate counterbalance is transparency.  Make it known to whom our officials are indebted during the campaign and allow voters to make their judgments accordingly.

As to the matter of billionaire financiers and super PACs and all the poison they have supposedly injected into our system, we can take solace in the fact that, on the basis of last week’s returns, elections cannot simply be bought after all.

As noted by online scribblers, a gentleman named Sheldon Adelson expended more than $50 million from his personal fortune toward six candidacies during the 2012 race, and all six of them lost on or before Election Day.  Linda McMahon, former WWE president, managed to lose races for both Connecticut Senate seats, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, spending a combined $100 million of her own money in the process.

Adelson and McMahon placed bad bets.  Bill Maher, presenting a $1 million check to President Obama last February, placed a good one.  That is how we should view the role of runaway spending in elections.

Democracy run amok is still democracy.  I would have it no other way.

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