Political Fashion Show

Online widget frocks politicians in corporate sponsors' logos


Welcome, fashion and democracy fans! Today we celebrate an online spotlight that allows us to see more clearly how laws are purchased in this country—a device, indeed, that may help us to stop such purchases in the future.

Before we trot this little gem down the web-fashion runway, it’s important to look first at one example of how voters recently stopped the purchase of a law in California—yes, hallelujah!—by soundly defeating the well-funded Proposition 23. Following the biggest money back to Texas, we rallied with an informed vote because we knew that Big Oil was behind the proposition.

The outfits in our fashion show today will help us to similar victories in the future. On our runway, the models now swaggering in high dress are not chosen for their sex appeal, height, beauty or physique. In fact, some of them are chunky, even corpulent. Others are lean as weasels with that bland, smiling look that cries unctuousness even before they open their mouths.

But that brings us to one of the best parts of our show today—they will not be allowed to speak! Instead, their outfits will tell us what they have to say before they say it. The models are all U.S. senators, dressed in garb very much like NASCAR drivers, covered with logos of the corporations or groups sponsoring them.

This bit of fun clarity is brought to us by the Influence Tracker, an online widget developed by a collaboration of minds from Wired magazine and MAPLight, Berkeley’s follow-the-money organization. While the widget was still in development, Daniel Newman, who directs MAPLight, wrote an opinion piece for the San Jose Mercury News proposing that California legislators, when proposing a bill, should be forced to wear logos of their corporate sponsors.

“With our logo proposal,” Newman wrote this past July, “when lawmakers get up to speak, colorful patches on their suits will make it clear whom they represent. Your lawmaker, not just your AT&T installer, will wear the familiar blue and white AT&T sphere. AT&T is among the top spenders on lobbying in California, as is the Western States Petroleum Association. The association’s curved swoosh will be prominent on lawmakers’ suit jackets, along with the logos of their oil company members, including the red letters of ExxonMobil and the cheerful yellow and green sun of BP.”

Newman went on: “Lawmakers give away citizens’ money, water and air to the corporations and lobbyists who pay for them to get elected. If the office holders were required to wear NASCAR-style logos, this would become transparent.”

Forcing actual outfits on lawmakers is unfortunately infeasible, but the Influence Tracker does dress politicians with logos. Although the first version, out now, doesn’t focus on the Golden State, Influence Tracker creates a back silhouette of each member of Congress wearing the logos of their biggest sponsors. Released a few weeks before the Nov. 2 election, the widget can be downloaded to personal sites.

And though it doesn’t yet track our own state legislators, there is reason to keep improving the program since, according to MAPLight, almost 79 percent of the money raised by California legislators comes from outside of California. How can these legislators be representing the voters of this state? The money behind the recently defeated Prop. 23 —both for and against it—was mostly from other states as well.

“It’s a broken system where money sets the agenda,” Newman said in a recent interview. “But we have dollar democracy, not just a voter democracy.” In Newman’s eyes, the way to a government that is accountable to citizens is to reduce lawmakers’ financial dependence on groups that want something back from government. Following the money is a big start. This year, MAPLight tracked four of the propositions. Next year, it will track all of them.

In the meantime, Californians can check the MAPLight website after each vote in Sacramento, where they can find extensive data to sketch their own NASCAR suits for legislators. “We have the vote and the interest groups that support and align with that vote,” says Newman, “along with how much money they gave your lawmaker.” Sound like a coat of many colors? It is.

Get your own Influence Tracker widget at www.MAPLight.org.

Sonoma County Library