Four years ago, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s concept of hope and change fascinated America. As a captivating politician with a new style and rhetoric, this young senator from Illinois provided a fresh outlook for the future of American politics.
The 2012 election season carries a vastly different feel. With as many advertisements as money can buy, frequent fundraisers with celebrities and non-stop solicitations for contributions, both presidential candidates’ campaigns revolve almost entirely around money.
Between the skyrocketing costs of elections, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 that allows corporations newfound power over political contributions and the ever-growing number of deep-pocketed super PACs and outside backers, the American political process is controlled by a select group of people with more money and power than the average voter could ever dream of.
The highest-stakes race of all —the presidential election between Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — is not immune to this trend. This election is all about fact-checking the candidates’ claims and a constant flow of slanderous advertisements paid for by super PACs and outside groups. In such an environment, it becomes crucial for voters — especially students, who have the potential to make a real difference in a very close election — to make an active effort be aware of who is contributing money to the campaigns and what impact that has on the information voters receive.
Take, for instance, the recent presidential debate and its focus on tax policy. Obama contended Romney’s tax plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut while Romney countered that it simply wasn’t true. In the following days, the Obama campaign aired an advertisement insinuating that Romney was lying and the Romney campaign shot back that the Obama ad was misleading and inaccurate. As fact-checking organizations can attest, it would not have been the first time that either candidate said something inaccurate.
The question of which candidate is right about Romney’s tax plan is not what voters should be asking. They should be thinking about the bigger problem: the power of politicians and the influence they yield, as well as their ability to bombard the public with their side of any issue, drawing rigid, detrimental lines between people and parties. Since when did a political debate require live-stream fact-checking and advertisements about lying instead of a genuine exchange of ideas that help voters better decide who to vote for?
The narrative of this election cycle has not only been dominated by debate over which candidate has made more false claims, but which one can raise the most money. So far, Obama has raised $690.1 million and Romney close to $633 million, according to The New York Times.
On top of that, outside spending has skyrocketed and further fueled the campaign ad fire. Super PACs that support Romney spent $84.6 million as of Sept. 28 and dropped $2 million on campaign ads attacking Obama in the last two weeks of September, according to The Business Journal. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC created by two former Obama aides, has spent $5.1 million on anti-Romney ads. This money could instead be put to use reforming the American education system, Social Security, health care or any number of the United States’ most important yet most under-funded systems.
Of course, the concept that campaign contributions would be spent elsewhere is a pipe dream. The reality is that even more money will be spent in this election, and it will be spent to twist, distort and manipulate the truth. Most importantly, though, it will be used to try to sway voters. Fact-checking websites and the media provide a way for voters to see what is legitimate and what is not in politics. But voters must make an active effort to pay attention to these sources and who is funding political untruths just as much as the candidates themselves.
In a world so driven by money, it can be forgotten that the end outcome of all the ads and campaigning is ultimately determined by voters. It is no secret that college students can play a major role in presidential elections, as we saw in 2008. But with this power comes a responsibility to challenge accepted truths, to dig beyond bashing campaign ads and the money behind them to find out which candidate they want to lead the country for the next four years.
During election season, it is the politician’s job to convince voters that he or she is the right choice, and it is the voter’s job to figure out which candidate is the wrong one.
Mat Goldstein is an undeclared sophomore.