A family affair
A Different Drum
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the participation of wealthy people in our political process, using billionaire Sheldon Adelson as an example. Because the upcoming election would have a substantial impact on his personal finances, I suggested that for those like Adelson, funding candidates is essentially a personal investment.
A reader took issue with my column, stating that I had neglected to mention wealthy liberals who contribute to politics, like Warren Buffet and George Soros.
At one level, this is a fair point. But the larger point of my column wasn’t just to rail against wealthy conservatives. The problem is the same whether it’s liberals or conservatives doing the donating. It’s still a distortion of democracy.
The initiatives in the upcoming election provide us with an interesting example. It’s become a family affair.
On the left is one Molly Munger, the wealthy civil rights attorney who is funding proposition 38. This initiative would establish temporary taxes to fund K-12 education. Despite the at least $28 million Munger is pouring into the initiative, polls show it losing badly.
You may recall the governor has his own temporary tax measure on the ballot, Proposition 30. His more moderate proposal is currently polling around 55 percent or so in favor, so it’s likely to be close. If both Munger’s and the governor’s initiatives pass, the one with the higher percentage will take effect.
Ms. Munger has decided to go all out. Though her initiative has little chance of passing, she’s now funding ads that compare the two proposals, questioning whether the governor’s initiative will do as much for education as hers. It’s almost certainly too late to save Proposition 38, but she may well sink the governor’s proposal as well.
But Molly Munger isn’t the only headache for the governor even within her family. Her brother Charles, a Republican professor at Stanford, is one of those behind the new ‘jungle primary’ system we’re now using in California. He’s also poured $23 million into ads against Proposition 30 and in favor of Proposition 32.
Prop. 32 is one of the more deceptive measures in recent years. Its proponents claim that it will take special interest money out of politics by preventing both unions and corporations from collecting political money through payroll deductions.
The problem of course is that corporations generally don’t use payroll deductions to fund politics; they use profits. They already outspend unions about 15 to 1. Proposition 32 is a deceptive attack on the union role in politics, a rehashed version of a proposal that has already been rejected twice by voters.
Governor Brown has become convinced that the Munger siblings are working together to defeat his agenda. I rather doubt it.
It strikes me that rather than a coordinated effort by the Munger family, this is more a case of two wealthy siblings, both with perhaps a touch of narcissism, attempting to influence politics from their own particular perspective. Perhaps they’re just reliving family squabbles from their childhood dinner table.
Sounds nice if you can do it.
I have a few ideas that I think could improve our political system or make our state a better place. I bet several of you do as well.
But your ideas and mine aren’t likely to become policy any time soon. The initiative process was first conceived to be about grassroots democracy, a way for average citizens to come together to effect change when politicians fail.
But these days, it takes millions just to get an initiative on the ballot. Without paid signature gatherers, you’re almost certain to fail, no matter how popular your idea might be.
If your idea will have any real impact, it will likely draw opposition from entrenched interests on one side of the political spectrum or another. So, it will take millions more, probably tens of millions, to support your initiative through advertising and public relations.
If you really want to be successful, you’ll probably have to hold your nose and go negative on the other side, even if they just have honest and thoughtful disagreements with you. Like it or not, this is what works in today’s politics.
So yes, there are wealthy people donating to politics on all sides. There are Adelsons and Kochs on the right, Buffets and Soros’s on the left and Mungers on both sides.
But if we’re really to believe that the system is working, we must believe that these wealthy people are somehow diverse enough to represent the rest of us because our voices, no matter how loudly we raise them, are being drowned out.
Do you believe that?
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.