A first step toward empathic argument

The theme of this course has been on empathic argument.  The central idea of this rhetorical form is that understanding those whom you are arguing against – their positions, their motivations, their pain points as well as their goals – empowers you to make a more persuasive and compelling argument for your own position.

In that vein, here is my best effort at understanding some of the strongest arguments I have heard in opposition to self-financed candidates.

  • Self-financed candidates buy your vote – “He bought his seat in the Senate.”

Self-financed candidates smear themselves across billboards, sides of buses, on your television, across your newspaper, popping up on internet sites, in your inbox – their budgets grow by the day as they race for your attention.  This crowds out debate from the proper issues.

  • They buy your attention and today attention means election – “Something’s wrong with the system if all it takes is $60M to get public office.”

Voters are manipulated by the sheer volume of ads they see.  With community life increasingly fragmented, as people spend more time at work and less engaged in community organizations and other meeting places for spontaneous discussion, this kind of plastering a campaign slogan has more penetration, and less potential for backlash.

  • They sabotage the system, exerting too much influence into whose voice gets heard – “What happened to debating the issues?”

With virtually unlimited advertising budgets, self-financed candidates drive up the cost of running for office to such a degree that the game becomes who can raise money more effectively to compete, instead of a real face-off on issues.  By throwing their money into the race, they force others to do the same, drawing either a bunch of millionaires into political office or making fundraising the key competitive element in campaigning for elected office.  Worse, they could push worthy contenders out of political office, and create a future situation where everyone in office is wealthy.  Put bluntly, as Brad Johnson, a onetime adviser to Mario M. Cuomo when he was governor of New York, did in this article ”We will become a nation of two parties: old money and new money.’”

  • Self-financed candidates are of the elite and not good representatives of normal people

The elite – those who can afford to finance a campaign for public office from their own pockets – are not good representatives of average people.  If we promote this kind of campaign, we are essentially supporting a plutocracy where only people of certain wealth can successfully run for office.  This is a big problem – and not only because of their money.  These candidates also have different values.  Their willingness to buy a vote shows these values; they think they are above the system and can throw their weight around.  That’s not who we should put in office.  This sentiment was captured in slogans like “Wall Street values, not Main Street values” during the Senate campaign in NJ in 2000.

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