George W. Bush refers to his victories in almost every rural county as the "big swath of red on the map". Why progressive candidates lose elections in rural areas and what can be done about it.
The year 2000 Presidential election results showed that Republicans
carried almost every rural county in the country, while Democrats
carried the urban areas. This essay attempts to explain why
progressives, Democrats, and environmentalists generally do poorly in
rural elections and how we can do better.
Twelve years ago I settled in rural Oregon, three hours away from
parking meters and twenty five miles to the nearest stoplight. I have
worked on political campaigns to elect progressive folks ever since --
with some success now and then. Since the political map of the last
election showed almost every county in the US, outside metropolitan
areas, went for Bush, it seems a good time to write down what I have
learned the hard way about why rural folks vote for Republicans. And
why it is hard to elect progressives to office in rural areas even
though polls in urban and rural areas consistently show broad public
support for protecting the environment.
(Note: I use "Republican" and "wise-use" and "conservative" interchangeably, although I appreciate the inadequacy of such broad categorizations and acknowledge there are some Republicans who have good environmental records and some Democrats with bad ones.)
Campaigns plunge most progressive candidates into new and unfamiliar
situations where they interact constantly with people who often hold
views different from their own. One candidate, who left Washington
D.C. to move back to rural upstate New York to run for congress, said
his biggest adjustment was that he had not pledged allegiance to the
flag in ten years and then found it necessary to do it all the time.
Campaigns are an endless series of daily meetings with all kinds of
diverse people drawn together by their organizational affiliations
like Chambers of Commerce, Rotary, Kiwanis, and dozens more; and
geographic affiliations like all the voters in a particular town. A
candidate and their supporters will knock on thousands of doors and
visit with thousands of people face-to-face. Forums are unending.
There are public ones where a cross-section of voters come to meet
panels of candidates and private ones where a particular group, like
the Chamber of Commerce, hosts single or several candidates in a
coffee or luncheon setting.
All candidates for elected offices participate in parades, county
fairs, and make appearances in every town. The League of Women Voters
conducts town hall meetings, which usually include all candidates for
every office up for election. Over time Democratic candidates are
exposed to all the other candidates on their ballot: from the
Republican party's primary contenders to mayoral, city council, county
commissioner, and state and federal candidates too. By the time the
election is over, all candidates have a good idea about voters'
interests and priorities at the local, state, and federal level. This
is what I've learned.
1. DEMOCRATS DON'T UNDERSTAND THEIR OPPONENTS
In rural areas people depend on each other in ways outsiders cannot
understand. Conservative right-wing candidates are often people you
would like as a neighbor. They seem personable, honest, hardworking,
community-spirited, and are good listeners and in general, are fine,
upstanding people. Often they have very nice spouses. If you criticize
them in a public voters' forum in front of their immediate family and
friends, who are always in attendance, it may come across as bad
manners or as rude and unneighborly.
In rural areas, at one time or another everyone will have to depend on
a friend or a neighbor for something like pulling their car out of a
ditch in the middle of a storm. So anybody who "takes on" their friend
or neighbor in a personal or confrontational way is instantly branded
as an outsider, or as reckless and dangerous to themselves or others,
or someone who does not fit into the local culture.
In the past few years, I know of three local elections that removed
incumbents who would meet anyone's definition of progressive's
"implacable enemy." Yet they are remembered fondly and even held in
esteem by some local activists for the thoughtful way they handled the
many non-environmental issues that came before them. 90% of the issues
that elected officials deal with relate to civic governance and have
nothing to do with the environment. On these "other" issues, even
progressives often find themselves in complete agreement with
candidates on the right.
I was involved in one situation where a very right-wing county
commissioner was defeated in a primary election and it was clear his
political career was finished. Yet the day after his defeat, he drove
a hundred miles in a terrible rainstorm to present an "appreciation
plaque" to an environmental activist who was dying of cancer. They had
been constant adversaries over the years but he wanted to pay his
respects to her. The award ceremony was conducted at her bedside and
she slipped into unconsciousness shortly thereafter and died the next
day. It was a very moving experience for all involved.
When charges will go back and forth, the incumbent's rebuttals and
charges will have far more probative value and incumbents are often
better funded so they can get their message out more effectively than
a challenger. But the most important problem is that you can't go
after a man in a white hat unless you first get rid of his hat.
To get a constituency to turn against an incumbent state and federal
official from a rural district we must carefully establish his/her
record from the first day the legislature or congress meets and build
a case painstakingly in every newspaper, month by month in the years
prior to the next election. Then the groundwork is laid to allow
challengers to make arguments that will be credible.
2. CONSERVATIVES SEEM MORE SCIENTIFIC
Few progressives will bother to read right-wing literature, sit
through their testimony at hearings, listen to right-wing radio
programs or visit with "wise-use" folks. So the right-wing mindset is
terra incognito. But if you do listen, it is clear that many folks who
oppose environmentalists believe in their hearts that they are true
environmentalists and it is the environmentalists who harm the
environment. The constant call for "sound science" arises from the
belief that "sound science" fully supports the destructive policies
they advocate and it is environmentalists who manipulate science in
furtherance of policies harmful to the environment. The right-wing has
funded technical and scientific quasi-public advisors who work
tirelessly to assure ranchers and loggers that policies most
economically favorable to them are also in the best interest of the
environment. Further, the far right invests heavily in think tanks and
research and often tightly controls the levers of higher education in
rural areas so a side-by-side comparison of advocacy literature
clearly shows their evidence often appears superior to ours in terms
of charts, tables, and scientific footnotes.
Progressives may believe that right-wing ideas incorporate profound
ignorance and anti-modernism, but in fact even efforts to teach
creationism rather than evolution in the schools proceed from a
complex and densely footnoted scientific basis and purport to rely on
the latest "cutting edge science" developed by a network of
bible-based higher educational facilities. Conservatives honestly
believe that it is the progressives and environmentalists who are
superstitious, anti-science, and willfully ignorant. Many rural folks
honestly believe that most Democrats and progressives are mere tools
of dark forces who manipulate science to promote misguided values in
the interest of idiotic political correctness.
Ranchers are told that grazing is a boon for the deserts and loggers
that their clear-cut openings mimic forest fires and provide browse to
increase biodiversity. A "wise-user" told me, "I can see an increase
of deer and elk with my own eyes, so I know that we have increased the
amount of wildlife by our clear-cutting". There is a whole line of
scientific reasoning about young trees and carbon sequestration that
has convinced clear-cutters they are truly helping to solve global
warming. Another notion that proceeds from the global demand for paper
to poor Third World countries' logging practices has convinced folks
that US clear-cuts, if replanted, actually save the forests of Third
World countries from the hammering they would take if we logged any
For every argument we have that proves current practices are bad and
destructive they have equally probative information prepared by their
experts, who also have scientific credentials, that show that those
practices are helpful and merciful to the environment. Therefore the
reaction of rural extractors to our lawsuits and press releases is
hurt feelings that their conscientious efforts to do the right thing
are so badly misunderstood and misconstrued.
For a host of issues, from the value of hatcheries to the fireproofing
of forests, rural folks rely on arguments made not by volunteer
activists, as ours often are, but by "true scientists." Extractive
industry controls rural universities so schools of forestry and
grazing provide endless seminars, research and speeches at conferences
to provide rural extractors with the scientific and environmental
basis to continue, and be proud of, their destructive activities.
However, since rural extractors do trust "their" scientists, when they
do promote positive reform like the need to fence streams and open
culverts to fish passage, ranchers often respond in very positive ways
and donate considerable time and resources to making these
improvements. We have seen this lately in Oregon though our network of
Environmentalists' arguments fall on deaf ears because rural folks
truly believe they are being unfairly criticized for actions that are
good for the environment. Their scientists, analysts and role models
have assured them that they are doing the right thing and that
environmentalists are uninformed and naive.
3. URBAN MESSAGES DON'T WORK
Messages successfully directed to low income voters in urban areas may
not work in rural areas.
One might think that with the crunch on budgets at every level from
the school board to the Congress, the idea of taxing big corporations
to pay a fair share would resonate with the average voter. In the last
few decades, the share of taxes corporations pay as a proportion of
total taxes has declined considerably in relation to property and
personal income taxes. But average rural folks who probably hate
transnational corporations more than most urban folks, interpret
"anti-corporate" messages as anti-business - large and small. It seems
every rural person already has some kind of business or an idea of
starting one, (even the homeless). In fact one of the nastiest
arguments over the minimum wage I ever had was with a homeless person
when I was campaigning for a candidate who favored a raise in the
minimum wage. I thought bringing it up would establish rapport. No
Way! He saw himself as a future business man and was fretting in
advance about all the red tape and government obstacles to his future
success, including the high minimum wages he would have to pay his
Many rural folks believe progressives have a statist, big government
agenda and they fear losing their freedoms. They believe that
progressives and Democrats merely want to help urban rich people. Of
course for many the abortion issue is so compelling that it overrides
anything and everything else. They simply will never vote for anyone
who is pro-choice or what they term "pro-abortion." But since rural
folks are so pro-freedom, pro-choice campaigns based on "getting the
government out of our bedroom" have worked in rural areas where a
campaign that used the "A" word would probably have failed.
In some places like the Middle East and Africa, the political
differences between parties and factions are probably irreconcilable.
They are really debates between modernism and anti-modernism. I do not
think that is the case in the US. When rural conservatives cast their
votes for right-wing Republicans they truly believe they are fending
off transnationals, keeping big government out of their lives, and
protecting their families. Rural people may vote for Republicans but
often it is out of values which are, in their own way, actually progressive. Republicans who control the rural rhetorical
infrastructure have convinced folks that voting Republican is the best
way to protect themselves from insensitive urbanites who would ruin a
way of life based on family networks, caring and thoughtful neighbors
and hard earned community spirit.
4. VOTING RECORDS ARE SELDOM MONITORED
Most people never hear about the activities of their elected
representative in a negative light. A representative has hundreds of
opportunities to open hospitals, hand out checks and get favorable
coverage in the local papers. On the other hand the countless votes
and resolutions that create the anti-environmental record of most
legislative bodies is simply not reported at all or reported in a way
as to be incomprehensible to voters.
Since rural papers have no staff and resources for digging up stories,
they are at the mercy of what people feed them. Usually politicians'
acts are poorly reported in local newspapers and there is practically
no link between the acts of politicians and the reporting of their
acts in the local newspapers.
Given that right-wing candidates often seem reasonable,
straight-talking and neighborly, it is usually not credible to the
voters to produce and establish a record of past right-wing extremism
if the record is not clearly established before the election season
begins. Then it is far too late. The time window for educating the
voters about an incumbent's record is closed by the time primary
Voters lacking any details about the bad voting records of incumbents,
and the crazy talk and reprehensible behavior of their rural
"wise-use" legislators, will think YOU are irresponsible at best or a
"ranter" at worst if you wait until the middle of a campaign to raise
issues about an incumbent's voting record. By then every other word
you hear from a right-wing legislator is "balance" or how they will
"put people back into the equation." Since these candidates are
usually quite personable as individuals, once a campaign is underway
it is neither credible nor possible without prior positioning to try
to establish that a candidate is a right-wing extremist.
People need to hear a message many times (some say as often as seven
times) before the message sinks in. During a campaign charges and
allegations are usually dismissed as partisan bickering and some
charges are often too complicated to be understood, especially if
heard only once.
Noam Chomsky says that you can't challenge conventional wisdom in
sound bites or in two-minute speeches. If you try to establish that an
incumbent is extreme, what does that say about the people who voted
them into office? One cannot elect a progressive politician with a
campaign whose theme is that the incumbent representative is a
right-wing reactionary, because that really says to the voters that
you think the voters are stupid or have been conned. Voters abhor
arguments that imply their past votes elected a moron as their
5. RURAL PAPERS HAVE AN ANTI-ENVIRONMENTALIST BIAS
Campaign managers and candidates must read every page in all their
district's newspapers every day and quickly note that
pro-environmental views seldom appear and anti-environmental positions
are seldom rebutted. This news "blackout" is not because editors
ignore pro-environmental press releases or refuse to print our
material. Quite the contrary. Most rural newspapers will cheerfully
print anything that might draw controversy, as that is what sells
papers. The real problem is that few pro-environmental letters and
op-ed's are being written and submitted. Most environmental groups
don't monitor and rebut the endless crazy environmental assertions
that appear in rural newspapers. No one sifts our endless stream of
advocacy materials to extract, reformat and submit material for
newspapers to use.
More often than not, key documents and persuasive material about
environmental issues never come to the attention of even the
legislators who have responsibility for deciding and voting on issues.
On the other hand, elected politicians, from city counselors to U.S.
Senators, are deluged daily with newsletters, position papers, and
reports from right-wing groups. Environmentalists do not provide
enough information to make our case on our issues.
To raise the public's level of understanding about environmental
issues, information needs to be shared, disseminated and distributed
to elected and appointed officials and newspapers to a degree hitherto
unimaginable. We need to systematically correct misinformation in all
papers all the time. Every newspaper should be monitored every day to
rebut the negative articles and disinformation about matters
environmental. Writers will have to have a solid grasp of
environmental issues and then submit succinct and reasonable rebuttals
to clarify misinformation. We have a need for writers and political
organizers, who are also good environmentalists, to create and widely
distribute material about our issues. The present vacuum creates a low
level of environmental awareness.
6. ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS LACK POLITICAL SKILLS
Most environmental activists do not become involved in political
campaigns and so they lack the rudimentary skills that, for example,
most unions have in constructively participating in the nuts and bolts
of campaigns. But while environmentalists may lack experience or
interest in campaigns, many hold unshakable opinions and idealized
assumptions about politics, candidates, and how campaigns are won and
lost - - and see James Carville when they look in the mirror.
Practically speaking all that can ever be gained from helping a
candidate financially or through volunteering is merely some access to
the successful candidate after the election. This access permits our
ideas to be positioned and promoted. If environmentalists worked on
campaigns then we would have an opportunity to make our case as do
other competing points of view.
Unfortunately, progressives often demand - in advance - that
candidates advocate and be absolutely pure about all their positions
from the death penalty to abortion to the environment. But since the
voting part of the rural public does not agree with progressives on
these issues, it becomes a fine line for progressive candidates to
keep their volunteer base happy and yet not appear to be outside the
mainstream to local newspapers and the general voting public. The
Sierra Club is a notable exception, as they are active in all aspects
of campaigns and are organized, capable and helpful. They never force
candidates to "commit suicide" for them. If you ever need to canvas
every house in a community for a progressive candidate you will come
away with a positive view of the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club knows, as do all serious campaign volunteers, that if
you work on political campaigns then afterword when issues are being
decided, you may get a chance to make a pitch for your point of view.
This access, and nothing more, is what all campaign contributions in
cash or in kind actually buy. Serious political supporters often care
much less than is supposed about a candidate's specific views on
issues before they are elected because they focus on the meat in the
sandwich, which is access to a winning candidate after they are
elected. During the campaigns I have worked on it has been very rare
for me to have a substantive conversation about policy issues with a
candidate, and as often as not I have no real idea of how they stand
on particular environmental issues. There is time enough to talk about
that after they are elected.
More importantly, given the fact that most Republicans are usually
rabidly anti-environmental, the main goal of most state and federal
campaigns is not to elect environmental champions from rural areas but
to secure Democrat majorities in the legislatures so urban Democrats,
who are usually pro-environmental, can control the committee
assignments and prevail in the floor votes.
7. VOTERS THINK ENVIRONMENTALISTS ARE RADICALS
I know of one conservative rancher who ran and was elected to the
state legislature in an area covering thousands of square miles of
federal forest, which included world class Salmon runs. In every
public speech, he said that nothing happening on the land, no aspect
of logging or agriculture, had any negative effect whatsoever on any
fish habitat; and further, cow manure was a good nutrient for fish. He
said ocean conditions and predators were the sole reason for declining
fish runs. This was NEVER ONCE rebutted or challenged by anyone in any
audience in any forum. One sure way for an average candidate to appeal
to the average voter is to say that environmental claims like
"extractive industry might be somewhat responsible for some
environmental problems" are radical and extremist.
In the course of a campaign, candidates are seldom exposed to
organized and articulate environmentalists. Candidates are inundated
with invitations from every conceivable group, from retired federal
employees to volunteer fire departments, garden clubs etc. At one time
or another every organized group with any interest in the community
invites all candidates to a meeting. In fact, a serious campaign may
have one person devoted full-time to scheduling meetings - as many as
two or three meetings a day during the final months of a campaign. But
requests from environmental groups to meet with candidates are rare.
Average candidates can go through a complete campaign cycle, primary
to general election, without ever hearing a serious, organized pitch
for pro-environmental concerns. Environmental groups do not invite
candidates to their functions. So the campaign process trains even
progressive candidates to avoid environmental issues altogether if
they want positive feedback from audiences. They see little evidence
that prospective voters care much about environmental issues.
This is why advisors to progressive candidates generally discourage,
with considerable vigor, rural candidates from advocating
pro-environmental positions. Consultants have learned the hard way
that advocating environmental positions makes rural candidates
un-electable. When you visit with the very few rural incumbent
"progressive" state legislators, they will tell you their
pro-environmental votes are mostly based on their personal values and
not on any lobbying from the environmental community. Certainly on
occasion they hear from environmentalists, but compared with other
single-issue folks like the "No Motorcycle Helmet" advocates,
environmental lobbying and pro-environmental contacts are infrequent.
There is a near total blackout of accurate environmental information
in rural communities and an almost complete lack of environmental
concern. People are concerned about their property taxes, social
services, schools, and a host of other things but unless the
candidates bring up environmental issues, they are seldom ever rai8sed.
And if they are, they are raised in a context that assumes that all
environmentalists, from the Sierra Club to Earth First! are extremist
wackos. Progressive candidates learn very quickly that they'll lose
more votes than they'll gain from advocating any kind of
pro-environmental views. At campaign forums and public meetings hardly
any anti-environmental statement is ever challenged.
8. DO RURAL POLITICIANS IGNORE PUBLIC OPINION?
During national campaigns, opinion polls always show wide public support for the pro-environmental position even in western states and rural parts of the country. Yet when votes are cast, Republicans (and many Democrats) who represent the west and rural areas, invariably come down on the anti-environmental side of the issue and even seek public venues to make anti-environment tirades.
Why would conservative politicians consistently and virulently oppose environmental protection when polls show the residents in their district support it?
Do conservatives ignore polls? Is it a simple matter, as many environmentalist assert, that they have been bought off by extractive industry? No on both counts.
The effect of public opinion and campaign contributions on politicians is poorly understood.
THE DYNAMICS OF VOTERS AND VOTING:
Do politicians disregard public polls or opinion? Not at all. Politicians track public opinion carefully and contort themselves into pretzels to keep their ears to the ground. But the "public opinion" they hear is from the voters who put them in office and who keep them there. Public opinion may as well not exist if it never expresses itself in actual election returns.
A story goes that President Kennedy once called Tip O'Neil the day after Tip had been reelected to Congress and asked why Tip had failed to carry one of his hundreds of Boston precincts with his customary majority. O'Neil explained that he had alienated an important family in the precinct and the whole extended family had voted for his opponent. That Kennedy had noticed this odd voting pattern would not surprise an experienced political operative because politicians routinely and carefully follow voting patterns down to the neighborhood or precinct level.
You may not know your neighbor's political views or level of political activity but both political parties do. A big budget item in most campaigns is the modern technology that can link an individual's voter's voting history to answers given in telephone polls and allows politicians, even in state legislature races, to track a voter's views. Minutely tracking public opinion and voting results is both a vocation and avocation for successful politicians. They follow these statistics just like obsessive sports fans follow football and baseball scores.
All this must be placed in context of another important aspect of how our political system works. In the November 2000 election 98% of incumbent Representatives and 82% of incumbent Senators were reelected. The extraordinary success of incumbents in American elections means the ONLY important election a politician needs to focus on is the next primary election, where their party chooses its candidates for the November general election. A conservative legislator's only fear is a credible, attractive, primary challenger from his political right... particularly one who might draw financial support from the conservative establishment. Therefore Republicans care about "public opinion" that could provoke the conservative establishment to run a challenger in the next primary.
And Republicans unlike Democrats are not shy about making serious threats to do exactly that to Republicans who stray from the party line. This is why Republican moderates, except for a few from New England, tend to stay in line for important votes, like the Clinton impeachment where the sentiment of the country was very opposed to what the Republicans were doing or the 2001 tax bill where Republicans gave rich people all the budget surpluses before they even materialized. Because of the math of incumbent re-elections Republicans usually don't oppose the party line regardless of their personal views.
DOING THE MATH OF ELECTIONS
FACT: The number of people voting is declining. Only 50% of the voting-age population vote in the November general election to choose our president. Off-year general elections, the November elections between presidential elections in which every congressman must run, have even lower voter turnout - about 35%. More importantly, even less turn-out occurs in the primary elections, held between March and July where the candidates that win, get to run in the general elections. Nationally the voter turn-out for primary elections is a mere 17-18% of the eligible voters. That figure is for both parties combined. Primaries for Republicans account for about half of those voters or about 9%. And while a Republican primary may on average involve only 9% of the voting-age population in state or congressional districts, the winning candidate only needs 51% of that 9% to win.
Thus to be reelected and remain in office politicians need the votes of a majority of the handful of people who vote in the primaries. Of course in any election, the young, the poor, the minorities and the progressives are the least likely groups to vote. And millions of black men can't vote in many states because they are convicted felons. The right wing, the evangelicals, the elderly, and the highly ideological are most likely to vote. So the number of people choosing Republican candidates is not only small, but far more evangelical and right wing than Republicans in general.
Therefore Republican primaries are dominated by a highly motivated, but small number of very conservative, extreme right-wing voters. The politically active, religious right makes up about 25-30% of the voters in primaries but their impact is greater than that because in any election those votes are cast almost as a solid bloc. Evidence of what the religious right can do to a front runner in a Republican primary was seen in the McCain candidacy. His attack on the extreme right motivated a strong right wing turn-out and was viewed by most pundits as the main reason McCain lost the Republican presidential primary to Bush.
For practical purposes when we speak of public opinion, and its effect on politicians, a politician needs to closely follow the opinions of perhaps only 10 % or less of the voting population: those citizens who are registered to vote AND who consistently turn-out to vote in the primaries. Our problem with America's policy and lack of progressivism is not lack of public support. The public supports us. Our problem is the conservatives who turn-out and vote in primaries.
WHY NO ONE IN AMERICA CAN AVOID "DOING POLITICS".
The effect of low voter turn-out in American elections is that the very few people who show up to vote control the political process. By commission or omission every American is actively involved in the political process. In other words, you choose which way you will participate: directly, by showing up to vote or indirectly by staying home and giving your voting proxy to the folks who vote. People who don't vote magnify the impact of people who do. This phenomenon is a good example of a basic fact of representative democracy. There is no way you can avoid getting involved in politics.
The phenomenon that the people who vote get to decide everything is not limited to just major political elections. To ANY candidate whether for school board, labor union, or Congress, there is only one public opinion that counts that of the few people who show up to vote. For Republicans this means the extreme right wing.
WHO ARE THE MOTIVATED REPUBLICAN VOTERS?
A Republican's reelection depends on whether his or her voting record remains acceptable to the hard-core right-wing Republicans who will vote in the next primary. If Republicans seem controlled by a fringe of extreme right-wing voters it's because they are.
Through a variety of sophisticated "Get Out the Vote" campaigns, the radical right has identified and cultivated a highly-motivated and hyper-ideological subset of Republicans who vote in every election. This explains the far-out platforms of the candidates in the year 2000 Republican presidential primary. The aspiring presidential candidates' views might have appeared odd to the average American, but they were perfectly tailored to appeal to the peculiar set of folks who are the Republican party's voters. The conservative party-line is never further away than any random ten minutes of right-wing radio heard in every community in the country. Extreme right-wing talk-show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh, who has a listening audience of 15 million, and some so-called "Christian" radio programs spew out continuous hysterical political vitriol and anti-progressive invective to tens of millions of Americans 24 hours a day.
These radio talk-show hosts and thousands of evangelical churches produce tens of millions of voter scorecards during election season. Their combined clout produces the strength to "take out" any Republican in the next primary. For example, during the Florida presidential recount, the pronouncements of Tom Delay, the hammer, who enforces party loyalty, was a perfect predictor of the spin the right-wing talk shows would be parroting a day or two later. The conservative rhetorical establishment from Delay to Limbaugh to the religious radio stations are a coordinated system for enforcing Republican party loyalty and for delivering votes. Combined they represent a de facto political campaign operating full-bore, all day, every day and woe to any Republican who strays from the party line. This is why the Republican leadership always holds their party virtually 100% together for anti-environmental or socially-conservative votes.
9. CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS ARE NOT A ROOT PROBLEM
There is no issue that people are more confused or misinformed about than the effect of campaign contributions on political votes. Of course money pollutes American politics. Campaign finance reform is overdue and necessary, but for most environmental and social issues, as opposed to the more arcane issues of tax and trade, political contributions are less of a factor than is often supposed.
While a small number of motivated voters may swing primaries, nevertheless an elected official will generally not vote against economic interests that create jobs in his or her district . Money will flow to the politicians not to buy their votes, but to reward them. And there is a big difference between these two points. PACs (Political Action Committees) don't buy politicians; but PAC money certainly flows to votes.
The "motivated" voters in a district determine how a politician will vote and it is those votes that subsequently attract contributions.
For example, when a member of Congress (Republican or Democrat) votes for a submarine construction program in his or her district, it is concern about not alienating defense industry workers and their families that influences their vote. Subsequent contributions from defense contractors are rewards for their votes - they have not bought the votes. Similarly, a rural North Carolina politician from a tobacco-growing district does not require PAC money to insure that he votes with big tobacco. But big tobacco will reward his votes to make sure he stays around to vote as his constituents wish and to make sure he advances in seniority up through the committee-chair system.
Contributions from interest groups are a following rather than a leading indicator for votes. No amount of "Right-to-Life" money is likely to affect how an urban Democrat votes and no amount of pro-gay money would affect the votes of a conservative Republican. For example Bob Dole returned donations from the gay Log Cabin Republicans. Candidates simply don't solicit contributions from PACs that offend the voters who elected them.
In any showdown between what big money PACs want and what a representative's voters want, the voters will usually prevail. Of course some arcane issues like changing depreciation schedules or selling the communications spectrum are of little interest to most voters. For these sorts of issues, money may well be the causative factor in the way a politician votes. But on social and environmental issues where the views of the voters are well informed, motivated voters not PAC money will dictate a politician's behavior.
I have seen progressive Democrats refuse environmental and pro-choice contributions and endorsements from PACs to avoid the potential adverse publicity and stigma of PAC money from causes in conflict with their constituents' views. And I have known very conservative politicians from moderate districts, whose personal views were far to the right who shunned endorsements and contributions from far-right causes for the same reason. So PAC money ratifies and reinforces a legislator's views, but usually cannot change them.
If you read political biographies, you know that Senator Robert Packwood from Oregon (a rabid anti-environmentalist at the end of his Senate career) was an avid pro-environmentalist when first elected and George Wallace was a strong social progressive at the start of his political career. Both changed their views, votes and rhetoric to comport with the views of their voters.
The TV program "West Wing" notwithstanding, most elected politicians have one passion: to faithfully represent the views of the people who put them in office - - whatever those views may be.
People who complain about our corrupt political system and promote "silver bullet" campaign reform solutions, yet ignore the anti-environmental rhetoric that bathes their communities, are like a parent who lets his child eat junk food and then complains about transnational agriculture conglomerates. Yes junk food is a problem in society, but what any particular child eats depends upon the unique local factor of what his particular parents feed him. Similarly we may have a corrupt political process, but what an individual legislator does will depend almost entirely on local factors in his district.
The problem with the poor progressive voting record of most elected officials is that we have failed to communicate and educate their voting constituency. Even if we totally reformed the political system and took money completely out of politics, our environmental problems would not be solved. In fact they might get worse if the excellent Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) materials disappear from the political debate. Many of the most important pro-environmental votes are cast only due to fear of a "bad vote" showing up on the scorecards of LCV.
For social and environmental issues the voters' opinions rather than the corrupting influence of money are our core problem. When right-wing organizers arrive and inflame a community against some reasonable project, the match may have been paid for by lobbyists and corporations, but the tinder was assembled from years of anti-environmental education. For dry forests, and uninformed communities, lightning strikes (real and rhetorical) provide opportunities for ignition, but local conditions always determine the ultimate size of the blaze.
Once PAC money begins to flow to votes, a positive feedback loop is created. The PAC money attracts informed, persuasive lobbyists into the politician's orbit and they strengthen and deepen the politician's personal commitment to issues that he or she may have originally supported to accommodate constituents. Thus over time, politicians develop a highly held conviction that their votes are not only what their constituents want (and attract money too), but are morally and ethically the right thing to do.
After a while the voters' views, the PAC money agenda, and politician's personal views become intertwined. Accusing politicians of voting against the environment because they take money from extractive interests just makes them disappointed that anyone could so misconstrue their good intentions. They know in their hearts that their votes are based on sound moral, legal and environmental values.
For example, the wide perception of the need to do massive restoration logging to avoid fire danger in rural communities has not arisen from any quid pro quo from timber corporations' political contributions. Politicians wouldn't knowingly expose their constituents' homes to fire danger to attract campaign contributions. Rather, timber corporations' contributions have provided abundant access to make a persuasive, environmentally-based case for "thinning." Their access has persuaded politicians that logging truly reduces the threat of fire, and benefits the environment too.
Political contributors rarely do anything as tacky and illegal as buying votes. Why? Because they don't need to. Money secures the access needed to persuade and influence and thereby inform politicians' voting behavior. (With apologies to Keats):
Access is influence, influence access - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
TO BE CONTINUED...in part 4.
(Note: This essay was originally distributed to the Usual Suspects list as #'s 22 - 24)
©2001 Jim Britell
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May not be reproduced without permission.