We have all just witnessed the most expensive election in history--one in which spending by outside groups reached new heights, and the amount the public knows about the sources of that money reached new lows.
Although it would be easy to overstate, it is true that this money doesn't seem to have bought the electoral returns hoped for by many of those supplying it. For those concerned about money's distorting effect on our system, it's inspiring to see that there are limits to how far voters can be pushed by campaign dollars. But it would be a grave mistake to conclude that this means our system is not corrupted in fundamental ways.
Tuesday's general election outcomes were shaped by spending that happened months ago, during the primary process. In part, this week's lopsided results can be seen as proof of a country that wasn't well-served by the choices it had. In many races, virtually unlimited financial support from wealthy individuals made it possible for unusually extreme candidates to win nomination. This meant that the average voter had fewer good matches for her priorities on November 6.
And this money erodes the public's faith in our system. Endless misleading campaign ads breed distrust, disillusionment and distraction. With unlimited money to fuel them, the inexhaustible competitiveness of our politics threatens to alienate the people it's supposed to serve.
But the most important effects of 2012's avalanche of money will come after Election Day. Even if their candidates lost, the influence bought by America's new class of megadonors will remain. Those who won on Tuesday won’t be the only ones running our system: many, if not most, of the losing staffers, consultants and politicians will remain in politics, as will their more successful allies. All of them can be counted on to remember the favors that powerful donors did for them.
How will those debts be repaid? How can we be sure that it won't come at the expense of our system, our country, and those who can't afford to buy influence? The answers are the same as they've always been. Transparency through real-time reporting and measures like the DISCLOSE Act. Vigilance by the public and the press. And an insistence that our representatives be held accountable.
We have just seen that there are practical limits to what money can buy on Election Day. Now it's up to all of us to make sure there are limits to what it can buy on every other day.
flickr photo via Joe Shlabotnik