Why "Outside Money" Isn't Something to Get Angry About

The chart of the day, which comes via the Center for Public Integrity, is both vivid and, I'll argue, mostly beside the point. But before we get to my objections, the first thing to notice is what's obvious: Scott Walker and his allies spent way, way, way more money than the other side did in Wisconsin. While it's true that the more high-profile an election is the less a spending advantage matters, and while it's also true that as long as the other side has enough funds to compete, a spending advantage matters less, we're talking about a 7-to-1 difference here, which is pretty striking. Now, to the chart:

 

I'll ignore the fact that they use a pie chart, which is if not a capital crime of data visualization, at least a misdemeanor. In any case, there are two points this chart is making: the difference in Walker's money versus Barrett's money, and the difference in the amount each raised from out of state. To the latter, I say, who cares?

This data point—that one candidate raised more from outside the state or district than the other—is raised equally often by people in both parties, to demonstrate that one candidate is in touch with the good folks back home, while the other is captive of sinister outside interests. In the case of the Wisconsin recall, it's particularly silly. This was as nationalized as any state race can be. If a bunch of liberal billionaires had stepped up with an extra $26 million so Barrett could match Walker's money, would Barrett have said, "No, I'll only accept help from Wisconsin-based super PACs!" Of course not.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that our post-Citizens United world doesn't make a mockery of democracy, because it surely does. But Scott Walker isn't a pernicious figure who wants to destroy unions so the wealthy can trample all over working people and the Republican party will enhance its electoral advantages because rich conservatives from outside Wisconsin give him money. Rich conservatives from outside Wisconsin give him money because he's a pernicious figure who wants to destroy unions so the wealthy can trample all over working people and the Republican party will enhance its electoral advantages. There's a difference, and it's one we usually ignore when we talk about "outside money."

It's particularly irrelevant when we're talking about Congress. Members of Congress may try to serve their districts, but they spend most of their time working on issues with national importance. So of course, groups and individuals with national concerns are going to give money to members of Congress. If you get a lot of money from outside your district, it probably just means you're an incumbent. And we may decry politicians being bought, but don't forget that very few get bought against their will. The identities of those who bought a politician may tell you something about who he is and what he's up to, but it's probably something you should have known about him already.

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