How to win with millions less

When you reflect on what’s gone haywire in American politics, you can almost sum it up in one word. Hell, I can get it down to two letters.


That’s an oversimplification, of course, but not that much of one.

In my lifetime, it was once possible to run successfully for statewide public office in Wisconsin for hundreds of dollars. For 30 years, Bill Proxmire did just that. For three decades, Prox was elected statewide as our U.S. senator, and his campaign spending never reached $300 in any of his bids for that office. In his last run, he spent $145.10 and was reelected by a landslide.

That was possible before television became king of American politics. In Proxmire’s day, the primary way most people learned about politics and government and elections and candidates was by reading the newspaper. Today most people get most of their information about these topics from watching TV.

America stands alone worldwide as the only major democracy lacking some system of free air time allowing candidates to communicate with voters without having to pay for the privilege. Here, candidates for office have to pay handsomely to get their messages to voters. This explains why total spending in Wisconsin’s last two elections for governor was in the neighborhood of $80 million.

The biggest expense – by a long shot – is television advertising. And most of that advertising is misleading at best and character assassination at worst. Put another way, most of that $80 million paid for poison. All those 30-second attack ads poisoned the well from which public participation is drawn. They made would-be voters hate politics and politicians a little more than they already did before. They poisoned democracy.

Oh, some money goes for radio advertising and a little goes to print ads of one kind or another. Online political advertising is growing fast but still pales in comparison to the spending on TV air time.

In this television age, a vast industry has grown up around the business of election campaigning. And every element of this industry works to sell candidates for public office the way laundry detergent or hair care products are sold.

Every element of this industry works to make candidates less authentic. In exchange for exorbitant fees, consulting firms take care of every detail of campaign management. Candidates are told what to think and where to stand by pollsters. Speech writers put words in their mouths. And ad agencies craft slick marketing campaigns. It all culminates in outrageous sums of money going to media ad buys.

The highly paid operatives who place the ads and very few others know a dirty little secret. They have to buy an increasingly large number of spots for their clients’ ads, at a higher and higher cost, to get the same audience reach that they used to get at a far lower cost. That’s because viewers are more and more eager, and more and more technologically equipped, to avoid ads. This is another reality that is driving the cost of the political arms race.

Democracy’s salvation depends on two related things. First, we’ve all been trained to accept that there is only one political currency – namely money – that matters. Past generations understood there were other currencies – like organized people and provocative ideas – that had great power as well. And on more than one occasion, some of these other currencies were married to produce a concoction potent enough to overcome money’s influence. In our day and age, these other political currencies have for the most part been taken out of circulation.

Second, the political addiction to television and the industry that caters to TV-driven campaigning must be broken. We need to challenge the acceptance that it is OK for those seeking public office to be peddled like consumer goods. We need to challenge an industry that makes candidates more fake at every turn. Candidates don’t need pollsters to tell them where to stand. They don’t need speech writers to put words in their mouths. They don’t need image consultants and they don’t need ad agencies to sell them to us. This industry is where the lion’s share of political campaign resources go. It is why we have $80 million elections for governor.

Breaking this industry’s stranglehold on our elections can get us our democracy back. Perhaps candidates won’t be able to seek office as cheaply as Bill Proxmire did, but they will be able to run – and win – for millions less. They will then be that much less beholden to big money interests and that much more able to truly represent the will of the people.