Money is a tricky thing. We need it to survive and even be happy, but too much money can hurt fragile ecosystems. This is especially true for environments that are designed to balance skill with hard work, much like video games or politics. The gaming giant, Blizzard, found that out the hard way back in 2012 when they introduced the Real Money Auction House so that players could simply purchase high-level weapons and armor with real-world money, as opposed to in-game gold. It nearly ruined the game in much the same way that the current explosion of campaign finance is threatening our political system, and if you think it might be too simplistic to compare to a hack and slash video game with the hack and slash world of the US Congress, than we would agree. At least Diablo III has rules that make sense.
Your Starting Class
In case you haven’t been paying attention this week -and let’s face it, a lot of the news media has not- hundreds of people were arrested at the Capitol, in a protest called Democracy Spring. The group is demanding that Congress pass the Government by the People Act, the Fair Elections now Act, the the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, the Voter Empowerment Act of 2015, and/or the Democracy for All Amendment… Really they are just looking for any sort of change that can begin to reform our broken campaign finance system, as we all should be. The influence of money in campaigns and the political process has been increasing over the past several decades. “Why is that a problem?” you might wonder. Well as Deckard Cain would said, “Stay a while and listen.”
Many people will point to the decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission as the main tipping point in the rampant campaign finance spending that has been flooding politics over recent years, but that is really just the last save point on a long journey to hell. An equally important decision was arguably 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo, which held that political money is equal to speech. That challenge by Senator James Buckley set the stage for Citizens United, which further argues that campaign finance spending is not just equal to speech but protected speech and that the Federal government has no right to limit corporations or unions from spending their money to exercise their right of “protected speech.” By the time Bill Clinton was elected in 1996 the Democratic party had raised over $122 million in “soft money,” which is campaign finance that is unregulated and undisclosed money that can be spent by third parties in favor of candidates. The Campaign Reform Act eventually banned soft money from federal campaigns, but the damage was already done. Politicians had seen the power of money in elections and in 2010 when an appeals court struck down the limit on contributions to independent expenditure groups -aka Super-PACs- things like soft money were the least of anyone’s concerns.
We don’t think there is anyone out there that disagrees that money affects the way the political process is conducted, but as a correlation it is worth returning to our example of Blizzard and their Real Money Auction House for Diablo III. Like Citizens United, it was a decision built upon a growing trend. For Blizzard it was the popularity of purchasable DLC, freemium Candy Crush bonuses, and the black market that existed for selling Diablo 2 items on eBay. So Blizzard went ahead and added an auction house where players could spend real money on high level items to help them advance in the game, instead of having to find and work for them like everyone else. However, when you break it down that grind is kind of the point of the game. Putting a Real Money Auction House may have been done with noble intentions, but in the end it just allowed people who had more money to acquire more items and level-up more quickly. It was a system that gave more power to people with expendable income over people who wanted to play the game fairly. In the strictest sense of the word, it was a cheat for the rich. More money meant more power and greater standing in the game’s community, and we’re pretty sure you can guess where we are going with this.
The Cash Cow Level
In arguments that are often similar to the ones used by the defenders of Diablo’s Real Money Auction House, people will try to make the case that candidates who have more money don’t always win. In fairness, that is true, but more money does at least guarantee you a place in the adventuring group, because nobody is going to fight Diablo with someone who has a low level dirk and and cloth armor. No political party is going to take a candidate seriously if they don’t have enough money to stay in the game -or at the very least a slotted Resplendent Rage Blade. This year’s candidates are certainly finding that out. After all, a candidate can have the best platform in the world, but if they don’t have the cash to get their face or their message in front of the voting public it won’t matter. Still the question remains, how much does money influence a candidate’s ability to win?
The answer is, we can’t be 100% sure. It is a tricky question because there are a lot of factors in play in any given election, but a more accurate question might be, “how poor does a candidate have to be to lose an election?” You see, the tricky thing about campaign finance is that elections actually do cost money, and every year they cost more and more, thanks in no small part to the massive build-up of campaign spending over the past decade. The Maplight Foundation found that the average cost for winning a seat in the 113th Congress was $1,689,580. That was the average cost. Unfortunately, the average household income of Americans in 2012 was about $51,000. Thus -unless your Bernie Sanders- politicians generally need more money than the average donor can supply. According to the Sunlight Foundation, in the 2012 election cycle 28% of all disclosed political contributions came form just 31,385 people. that is about 1% of 1% of Americans. And don’t be fooled. Corporations and donors may not be explicitly “buying” politicians, but they are definitely buying influence. You don’t need to look any further than the 1991 Keating Five Incident, where five US senators -including John McCain and John Glenn- tried advocating to Federal regulators on behalf of Charles H. Keating and his failing savings and loan business. Keating gave all five senators a combined $1.3 million in 1990’s money, and that is the problem. Americans may all get one vote, but thanks to massive importance of campaign finance that small 1% of 1% receives a disproportionate amount of attention from those in power. It is their issues that take precedent when it comes to campaigning.
In the 2012 elections it would have taken 322,000 middle-income Americans donating .37% of their net worth to match the donations of Sheldon Adelson’s 91.8 million dollars worth of donations, which is only .37% of his net worth. Incidentally, 322,000 is more people than it took to crash the Diablo III servers -just 300,000- when they opened for beta testing in that same year. Even worse 31% of the $1.03 billion spent in 2012 by outside organizations was “dark money,” meaning those donors were undisclosed to the general public. When it comes to elections there is a lot of money exchanging hands and more and more a lot of it is happening outside the realm of public scrutiny. In fact, one of the unintended consequences of taking “soft money” out of the hands of the GOP and DNC, but later allowing unlimited Super-PAC donations has only served to diminish the power of political parties and campaign finance accountability. Parties are losing control of their candidates because they no longer have a financial leash to hang over them. Just think about this year’s Republican circus of a primary. The two frontrunners are not who the GOP would have picked. Thanks to Citizens United, the influence of the DNC and GOP are waning in realms of campaign finance as the influence of big donors grow, like Adelson, the Koch brothers, or Thomas Steyer. Candidates are less reliant on the party bosses, but are more under the influence of a very small percentage of those who can afford to buy the best armor, the best weapons, and the best candidates.
In 2013 Blizzard shut down their Real World Auction House for good. They officially acknowledged that “it ultimately undermines Diablo’s core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot,” and it was the right thing to do. It restored the integrity of the game. Diablo III was never supposed to be about buying your way to the top, but about earning it through work and dedication. Politics is very similar. Getting elected should never be about who has the most campaign contributions, but who has the best policies and the most support of the people. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has done an amazing job grinding for his loot, but even with all his small donations he still cannot match the likes of Hillary Clinton’s campaign finance and her big donors and Super PAC. In a sense, they are not even playing on the same difficulty mode, and that’s not fair. The democratic process should be about “killing monster speeches and getting cool votes,” not having enough money to plaster your face on every billboard from here to the voting booth.
That is why we desperately need campaign finance reform, and that is what the recent Democracy Spring protests are all about. We urge you to again take a look at the bills they are fighting for. Many of them offer common sense solutions, such as creating a fund that helps match campaign donations from individual small donors; giving $25 refundable tax credit for political donations; a public debate requirement; political advertising vouchers; fair broadcasting time for all candidates; limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates; and a lot more small ideas that could really add up to a big change. The sad part is that most elected officials agree with a lot of these reforms, but they are also completely pessimistic about them ever getting passed. After all, Congress has tried to enact campaign finance reform before. At worst it falls flat, but even at best it ends up being a temporary relief, because for every Campaign Finance Reform Act that gets through there is a Citizens United waiting in the wings.
Yet, as long as the current system reigns the issues that candidate focus on will always tilt toward the interest of bigger donors, leaving the rest of us out in the wild, with all those skeletons and ooze creatures. The races are getting too expensive. It is forcing candidates to stockpile cash like nukes during the Cold War. Nowadays, to even be considered competitive you need a Super PAC or some other massive financial backer. That could mean literally selling your soul to Diablo, and that’s not fun or fair. Any gamer will tell you that you don’t give up when things get difficult. You keep fighting and working. If Blizzard can restore integrity to a game about fighting the devil, than we can do the same for politics. We just need to keep grinding away.
If you agree or want to help, maybe it is time to write a letter to your Congressman. Let them know how you feel, because if we don’t fix this, we really could be facing Hell on Earth.