Mark Shields: When money speaks, the truth is silent

By Mark Shields

Let’s hear a round of applause. When this year’s last negative TV ad has been aired and the last check, from an anonymous donor, has finally been cashed, 2014 — at a total price tag of close to $4 billion — will have been the most expensive nonpresidential election year in U.S. history. Pointing out the parity in total spending between the two major parties, some political pundits argue that we should not be worried about candidates collecting more and more campaign money from wealthy individuals and interests. These reassuring pundits, believe me, could not be more wrong.

Let me confess that I have some firsthand experience in raising political money. During my youth and early middle age, I happily, if not brilliantly, managed political campaigns, in which my duties often included asking wealthy people for money. It was then that I became a sort of “anti-Calvinist,” convinced that God gave money to the least appealing and least interesting of her creatures. How many times did I endure — from a middle-aged white American born with a trust fund and powerful connections — a sermon on our urgent national need to restore up-from-the-bootstraps individual responsibility?

To raise $4 billion, political candidates generally do not spend a lot of time in the company of waitresses, hospice workers or truck drivers. No, to raise $4 billion, you mostly have to seek out and, yes, fawn over the wealthy. You flatter the rich and are careful not to laugh at their cockamamie idea that the surefire way to dramatically reduce inner-city poverty is to eliminate the taxes paid on capital gains.

This political year — according to the respected Center for Responsive Politics — though there has been more money raised and spent, it has come from fewer donors, which means that candidates are even more dependent on deep-pocketed individuals. Big donors do not personally rely upon public education. They obviously do not live in public housing or depend upon public transportation or public recreation or public libraries. If public safety is underfunded, the wealthy can — and usually do — buy their own private security. They have little personal need for the public community college or the public health center.

Equality of opportunity is a nearly universal American value. But without good schools, adequate nutrition, accessible health care and safe neighborhoods for American families, there can really be no equal opportunity for American children.

As you may have noticed, these “public” causes did not get a lot of campaign attention, nor is there any real discussion, let alone debate, about the exploding inequality in our country when the share of the nation’s income going to the top 1 percent has more than doubled since the 1980s, from 10.8 percent to more than 22.5 percent. When it comes to wealth, the top 5 percent of U.S. households — which, barely a quarter-century ago, controlled 54 percent of the nation’s wealth — now have 63 percent of that total.

So what happened? Former Rep. Dan Glickman, a Democrat from Kansas who later served as secretary of agriculture, once candidly explained why his party had lost so much of its willingness to stand up for the little guys against the powerful: “Money has made it more difficult for Democrats to define an economic agenda that is different from the Republican agenda. We are taking money from the same sources.” It’s true; when money speaks, both the people and the truth are silenced.


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