This might be my craziest supposition yet: money absolutely rules. Many live their whole lives in pursuit of the acquisition of money; we feel desperate and destitute without it, and no matter what the income level, it seems like we can all agree that there’s never enough of it. As eager as we are for money in our own lives, it seems to have an even greater sway over our political system. Each new election seems to meet some unprecedented spending limit, whether that’s to take a seat on a school board or in the Oval Office.
But I’m not trying to smack down the myth that our system is flush with cash. I’m going to smack down the myth that it matters more than anything else. Here’s the real secret to politics: your vote is the most powerful tool you have. And as long as you won’t let it be for purchase, you keep the money monsters at bay.
So why do we believe the myths? Corruption and bribery used to play a much bigger role in our politics. Initially, a spoils system of local, state and federal offices made corruption constant. Whether people were bribing elected officials to obtain access to top posts or looking for opportunities to extort from businesses and common folk once they were appointed, money infiltrated every level of our political system.
Today, that is way less true. The civil service system that staffs most of our important roles is not controlled by elected officeholders. There are strict rules on hiring, and major posts require financial disclosures and sworn testimony before the Senate. The state level varies more, and this is where most corruption is happening these days. Governors, state senators and state representatives do steer access, contracts and opportunities towards family, friends, donors or even themselves. The upside of the more localized bribery is that it is easy to see and happening on a much smaller scale.
Yet we still have more money sloshing around the system than ever before. So it must be doing a lot of corrupting, right? Yes and no.
Yes, the money reshapes the thinking and agendas of elected officials. Their priority lists tend to favor big donors, and this is part of the reason a donor gives money in the first place. The only difference between a top donor and an everyday citizen is the amount. Everyday citizens give money because they believe either that this politician is already doing good work and they want to encourage them to continue, or that a politician will act in their interests and prioritize what is most important to them. The same thing happens when a wealthy individual or corporation gives a significant amount of money.
So no: the money sloshing around isn’t absolutely, positively corruption. Most major politicians need the money to reach out to voters, and they already have a strong idea of what is important to them and what kind of initiatives they’ll prioritize. Most of the money elected officials are accepting does not come with strings attached (at least none that can have a lasting impact). They can really do whatever they want once the money is in their coffers. The vast majority see money as a means to an end. That end? Is your vote.
This is where your practice of citizenship comes into play. What are politicians saying or doing to get your vote? What is their track record? Can you see times where they stuck to their principles, despite who their top donors are? Can you see if their priorities shifted once a major influx of money came in? Is there a big gap between what constituents need and what policies they seem to prioritize?
The easiest way to fight the money in the system is to treat the campaign like a job interview. Just like in real life, more money will make the interview start smoother. You’ll have nicer clothes and hair for a first impression; you’ll have a more expensive education on your resume; you’ll have a wealth of connections giving you recommendations. But none of that will matter if you can’t explain your own thoughts, if you struggle to express basic understanding of the subject matter, if you can’t speak to any achievements or concrete developments in your career.
Politicians may have sleek campaign ads, flawless wardrobes, easy travel and well-organized websites. But you will always come out ahead of big money if you demand substance from them. A corrupt politician does not think for themselves; they accept orders and talking points from big donors. A corrupt politician will not want you to focus on results or process; they will distract you with sob stories or exceptions to the rule. A corrupt politician will have few accomplishments; they will campaign on vague yet compelling future promises rather than actual successes.
Most strikingly: a corrupt politician will have a major gap between their actual documented behavior and their rhetoric. Maybe they talk about how much they love and appreciate family, but vote against policies that would make it easier to build strong, healthy families. Maybe they speak a lot about helping the poor, but they don’t contribute to charity or have a record of making life better for the most impoverished. Maybe this politician speaks highly of those who have served in the armed forces, but does little or nothing to improve the lives of military families or to enhance physical and mental support systems for veterans.
If you can learn to see what really matters for a politician, no amount of money in the world could convince you to sell your vote. Having a sense of your own principles, having knowledge of who their donors are, and having good comprehension of their record and their thinking will keep us, as citizens, from making bad decisions about who to elect into power.
So does money really matter? Only if we let it.