Political influence is not for sale


According to former MEP Marietje Schaake , “lobby money” has an increasing impact in the voting booth (NRC, 13 November 2020). She underpins this with the example of Uber and Lyft spending a lot of campaign money in the state of California to influence a referendum outcome. Schaake also mentions the increased spending of “big tech” on lobbying efforts in the EU. Two examples which, in her view, lead to the conclusion that every dollar or euro spent on lobbying, is proportional to an increase in influence on the issue. In practice however, I have seen that this conclusion is simply not true. Although it may seem logical, it is an underestimation of the voter, the policy maker and the influence of the media.

In order to demonstrate this, one must acknowledge that a campaign for a certain political issue is something quite different from an advertisement for a particular product. While the first focusses on activation (“buy me”), the latter focusses on influencing an opinion (“support me”). Such messages lead to a different processing in the human brain – something behavioural scientists already demonstrated years ago.

Secondly, the impact of (social) media plays a crucial role in political influence. When newspapers, TV and online media pay attention to an issue, this influences opinions and policy making. Think of certain NGO’s that realise a high media reach with relatively few financial means. In doing so, they generate a lot of impact and counter-power, and, at the same time, no purchased advertising can withstand such influence.

A classic example in this context is that of a global oil company that, years ago, wanted to sink a depleted production platform into the deep sea. A non-governmental organisation fiercely resisted this. Although research showed that sinking the platform into the sea was the most environmentally friendly option – which was later admitted by the NGO involved – the oil company had to change its plans under great social and political pressure. This is some practical evidence that money and political influence are independent of each other, which was also scientifically confirmed recently. Researchers Frederik Stevens (University of Antwerp) and Iskander De Bruycker (University of Maastricht) showed that while wealthy lobbying organisations can have more influence on policy, this competitive advantage dissapears as soon as issues generate more media attention. Because of this media attention, certain civil organisations could be more powerful than resourceful and wealthy organisations. This is what makes democracy so strong and makes money play a secondary role in influencing the policymaking process.

In addition, Schaake’s article also assumes that only corporations lobby, which of course isn’t true. But it is a fact that higher regulation density leads to higher lobbying density. In heavily regulated sectors such as, for example, health care, pensions and the energy sector, this could be recognised with the lobbying activities of both commercial and non-commercial organisations for many years. From patient organisations to pension administrators, and from environmental organisations to grid managers. In the tech sector, this regulatory density has also increased considerably in recent years. With a logical and predictable result: more lobbying activities emerged from both companies as well as NGO’s. It’s a good thing is that these activities are well registered – in both Brussels and in the US – so we know exactly how much organisations spend on lobbying.

To conclude, Schaake undermines her own argument that one could buy influence: Mike Bloomberg who, with a billion dollars in his pocket, did not become president. But neither did the Democratic Party, which did not get into the presidency any easier with more financial resources at its disposal. Money may help to put an issue on the agenda, but it is no guarantee of influencing success. Fortunately, is still the policy maker, the voter or the media that do that.

Although it may seem logical, it is an underestimation of the voter, the policy maker and the influence of the media.

Peter van Keulen

Senior Partner / Founder

Public matters

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