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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

soft money

(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “slush fund,” “dirty money”)

An example of a venerable expression that has seen boom times lately, in this case with a significant change in primary meaning driven by a change in circumstances, always a goad to new expressions. In the nineteenth century, “soft money” meant paper money, as opposed to hard money, which was precious metal formed into coins (sometimes known as “specie”). It took several decades before the now taken for granted consensus emerged that paper money is o.k., still not a universal belief. And it is true that if a government goes belly-up, the money it has issued goes with it, whereas gold is always worth something. Nonetheless, we have proven to most people’s satisfaction that it’s possible to run an economy on paper money, untethered to gold or anything at all except the government’s willingness to print it and the people’s willingness to exchange it, even through some heavy-duty financial disasters. (Print money, in this day and age? Now it’s not even visible — nothing more than numbers on a server somewhere. Oops, hope it didn’t get hacked.) Of course, history hasn’t ended, but we’ve kept it up for more than a century now.

When Lovely Liz from Queens nominated this week’s expression (thanks, baby!), I saw at once that she was offering me an opening for more of my brand of acidulous commentary, and it’s impossible to avoid in the case of this term, drenched as it is in political chicanery and malefaction of great wealth. Before we get there we must continue to trace its history, as we note a growth of use in this near-dormant expression in academic circles in the 1960’s. Following a couple of decades of lavish research grants, both public and private, “soft money” came into use to describe funding from such sources as opposed to funding provided for in university budgets. Soft money, while abundant, was subject to vicissitudes; government funding might be reduced upon a change of administration, or corporate funding might find a more useful target at some other school. By the mid-sixties, college administrators were warning each other against excessive dependence on soft money.

In 1979, an apparently minor change in federal campaign finance law introduced soft money as we know it today. In brief, Congress removed caps and eliminated disclosure requirements on donations to state party organizations, while maintaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. But there was nothing to keep state organizations from helping candidates for federal office, so corporations, unions, and PAC’s (political action committees, a brand-new phenomenon) as well as individuals could pay much more for influence than they had before, just in time for the 1980 election. It took a couple of cycles before the new order became a familiar fact of life, but within a decade everyone knew what soft money was. And the rich, whom we now call the one percent, were able to invest astronomical sums in their preferred candidates — almost always right-wing — and force officeholders into servitude, elected by the people at large but owned by only a vanishingly small number of them. By an unfathomable coincidence, wealth has become concentrated at historic levels since the dawn of the soft money era, but that must be an act of God, or the invisible hand, or something. And it’s true that politics is so awash in private funding that when soft money was outlawed by the McCain-Feingold act in 2002, it took little time and less effort for those torrents of contributions to find new channels. Recent Supreme Court decisions have opened the spigot further, and soft money has recently passed the torch to dark money, whose sources are not required to reveal their identity. Could be the Koch Brothers, could be George Soros, could be the Russians. The justices, or some of them, leap to the defense of our sacred right of freedom of spending secured by the First Amendment, while ignoring the public interest in honest politicians, or, if we can’t have that, our need to know who’s buying our elected officials.

Wealthy donors may, of course, withdraw their support; through all its changes of referent soft money has never lost that sense of impermanence. They can decide that they don’t get enough return on investment, or wish to avoid being tied to someone a majority of voters loathe. Better to pour that money into stock buybacks, dividends, and executive compensation than to spend it on unreliable politicians. Hard to imagine the puppetmasters pulling the plug, but it could happen. Especially if the current Republican tax bill, which massively favors the rich as every across-the-board tax cut must, fails to pass, which would require only two or three senators to undergo a spasm of conscience, or fear reprisal at the ballot box. But the reason they’re pushing so desperately to pass a tax cut in the first place is fear of reprisal from wealthy donors.

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