The lies we tell ourselves

We continue to puzzle (yes, probably way too much) at the recent editorial in which the Wisconsin State Journal tries to assure readers that the recall election was not determined –at least not exclusively — by money. They sum it up like this:

Money, of course, matters. But so does everything else.

Alright then. Doubtlessly true, in some sense. But how much does money matter? Could it be 80% of the story? 90%? And after accounting for the money, what exactly is left over in the remainder barrel labeled “everything else”?

For quite some time, the savvy insider understanding has been that money does matter very, very, VERY much, and in fact, in each new election cycle, the spending just grows and grows. Political consultants try to raise lots and lots of money. Lobbyists gain access by raising money. Outside groups deliver truckloads of money. News organizations report on just how much money each candidate has raised, and they treat it as an early proxy for how voters are going to wind up thinking. For several decades there has been no single indicator predicting who will win a federal or statewide election that’s more predictive than money. The State Journal reports candidate fund-raising on its front page. And on its editorial page, on days when it suits them, they grump about Wisconsin’s “money-soaked” elections.

But wait! All of a sudden the Wisconsin State Journal turns this narrative sideways, first in this (misleading) front-page news analysis (R’s and D’s both raise equivalent money?), and now again in this (bungled) editorial (Sure there’s money, but other factors matter, too?).

Is it somehow useful to avoid this elephant in the room?

Yes, it is.

  • For one thing, it’s boring for readers to see this same sad fact over and over. There’s a reason that news sellers will stop covering a war after the 3rd and 4th and 5th year. It’s depressing. It’s the same old story over and over. It’s not new and it doesn’t sell.
  • It’s useful to somebody’s interests to have elections controlled by money. Newspapers that identify with and support those interests may think it’s clever to tell the rubes, “Oh, money matters, but it’s not the only thing, you know.” (And technically it’s not the only thing See how clever that is?) You can judge for yourself whether that’s pertinent in the present case.
  • Maybe, at some level, they are lying to themselves. The State Journal editorial board, while strongly partnered with moneyed Republican interests, is not from the Crazy Wing of the party. See any editorial from category 2 — “The Surprisingly Correct”. They do worry on occasion about “good government”. It can’t really be lost on them that democracy at the federal level has been thoroughly captured by money, and that the same is now well-advanced in the states. And that their team (and it is a team) has been all for it. Maybe it’s useful — psychologically speaking — to tell oneself it’s not really that bad yet.