MapLight.org: Tracking the Best Politicians Money Can Buy

Money and politics in the U.S. are almost inextricably related.  Even the most optimistic among us realizes that political decisions are bought by private interests.  There’s perhaps no better example in history than that of the Bush Administration.  Laws and policy are created to favor the few (but rich), who end up having a profound impact on the entire nation. 

We all know this, but when it comes time to look at details, they’re extremely difficult to quantify.  For example, does a particular representative really believe that we shouldn’t protect the environment, or did someone pay her/him to state that?  And how often to politicians flip-flip on issues, driven by currents of cash?  The majority of the data we need to dig up the truth is freely available (often by law), but it’s notoriously difficult to make correlations.

A new startup, MAPLight.org is hoping to change all that.  Its small group of developers provide valuable (and often shocking) insight into the effects of contributions on politicians’ voting records.  From the site:

MAPLight.org brings together campaign contributions and how legislators vote, providing an unprecedented window into the connections between money and politics. We currently cover the California Legislature and U.S. Congress.

You can find out much more about this organization in eWeek’s article, Public Interest Mashup Follows Political Money Trail.

The information is extremely insightful and should be used by every voter to help make decisions.  I could even see the evolution of an “honesty score” based on voting records vs. campaign contributions. 

There are two challenges, however, that I see with this.  First, the American people are just not accustomed to using facts and evidence to make their decisions.  They’ll vote for George Bush, knowing full well that the guy is an idiot (and even after he had sufficiently proven it in his first term).  They’ll listen to religious zealots scream and yell about minor scientific research issues.  They believe that God is the answer to our problems.  No amount of research will help resolve that issue.

The other challenge is one related to gaining support for this initiative.  In a more progressive nation, this would be a government program.  One or more politicians would decide to support transparency and even the most crooked officials would have a hard time disagreeing with it.  The total cost would be far less than what we spend on Iraq every minute of every day. 

Unfortunately, if recent history is any teacher, I wouldn’t hold out hope for an initiative like this to change the face of American politics.  We have gone too far in the wrong direction, and restoring rational thought will likely take decades (assuming that it ever happens).  Still, it’s great to see innovative groups light MAPLight.org try to address the problem.

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