A heuristic is a “rule of thumb,” usually derived from experience. For example, when I get an email telling me that my inbox is full and I should immediately click on this link to ask my “administrator” to expand its capacity, use of a heuristic tells me to delete the message as spam (or worse).
Heuristics are valuable time-savers, but they can also lead us to unwarranted conclusions, by oversimplifying complicated issues.
I’ve been thinking about the increasing use of campaign contributions as a heuristic in voting ever since the midterms. Full disclosure: our daughter was one of the three (successful) candidates for the Indianapolis Public School Board whose endorsement by an “out of state” organization and ability to raise money was the basis of assertions by opponents that they were somehow less committed to public education than candidates who were not endorsed and who raised very little money.
Suspicions about money are understandable in the wake of Citizens United, in an era when Super Pacs, 527s, “dark money” from people like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Karl Rove and others regularly advance the prospects of special interests. But all endorsements and all funding sources aren’t equal.
If a candidate or campaign is endorsed by an organization with which you have significant policy disagreements, that’s obviously a legitimate reason to withhold your support, but the mere fact that an endorsement comes from a national group is not. Being national–even being “out of state”– is not in and of itself nefarious. Similarly, candidates who raise only trivial amounts of money either aren’t considered viable by most donors or aren’t working very hard–and neither is a positive sign.
Let’s take an example: When Freedom Indiana was fighting HJR 3, the ban on same-sex marriage, help from national organizations like Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign was critical to that effort–and to the effort to raise essential campaign funds.
What is important is transparency.
We need rules and mechanisms that permit voters to know where candidates are getting their money and what it is those contributors stand for. (Also–although since Buckley v. Valeo the Supreme Court has consistently failed to recognize it– we need rules limiting the amount of money that any particular person or organization can contribute, directly or indirectly.)
I’ll be the first to agree that the current rules governing campaign funding–if one can even dignify them as “rules”–aren’t helpful.
Voters should be able to look at the sources of a candidate’s support, and make their own judgments about what that support means, and whether they agree or disagree with the positions of the endorser or contributor. In the school board race, voters had that information, but in far too many situations, they don’t know who is behind the “Grandmas and Kittens PAC.” We need far more–and more frequently reported– information than we currently have, and we need enforcement of the rules (few and weak as they are) that do exist.
That said, all money isn’t evil and all issues aren’t exclusively local. Rules of thumb have their place, but they need to be properly applied.