The Money & Media Election Complex
Like the wizard telling the people of Oz to "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," Karl Rove used media appearances at the close of the 2010 midterm campaign to dismiss President Obama's complaints that Republican consultants, led by the former White House political czar, were distorting Senate and House races across the country with a flood of money—hundreds of millions of dollars—from multinational corporations and billionaire conservatives into Senate and House races. "Obama looks weirdly disconnected—and slightly obsessive—when he talks so much about the Chamber of Commerce, Ed Gillespie and me," Rove mused. "The president has already wasted one-quarter of the campaign's final four weeks on this sideshow."
The "sideshow" from which Rove sought to distract attention was, in fact, the most important story of the most expensive midterm election in American history: the radical transformation of our politics by a money-and-media election complex that is now more definitional than any candidate or party—and that poses every bit as much of a threat to democracy as the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned us a half-century ago. This is not the next chapter in the old money-and-politics debate. This is the redefinition of politics by a pair of new and equally important factors—the freeing of corporations to spend any amount on electioneering and the collapse of substantive print and broadcast reporting on campaigns. In combination they have created a "new normal," in which consultants dealing in dollar amounts unprecedented in American history use "independent" expenditures to tip the balance of elections in favor of their clients. Unchecked by even rudimentary campaign finance regulation, unchallenged by a journalism sufficient to identify and expose abuses of the electoral process and abetted by commercial broadcasters that this year pocketed $3 billion in political ad revenues, the money-and-media election complex was a nearly unbeatable force in 2010.
Of fifty-three competitive House districts where Rove and his compatriots backed Republicans with "independent" expenditures that exceeded those made on behalf of Democrats—often by more than $1 million per district, according to Public Citizen—the Republicans won fifty-one. Roughly three-quarters of all GOP House gains came in districts where independent expenditures by groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Rove's American Crossroads gave Republican candidates, some of them virtual unknowns until the outside money flowed in, the advantage. The money is powerful, of course, but that power is supercharged because of the decay, and in many cases disappearance, of independent and skeptical journalism at the state and regional levels, where elections are decided. Campaign narratives used to be created by reporters who, imperfectly but seriously, pulled together the multiple threads of an election season to give voters perspective. Now that narrative is driven by commercials—millions of them, most negative. The narrative for the most part still comes from broadcast and cable TV stations, as it has for some time, but it is now produced and paid for by economic elites that seek to define not just the results of an election but the scope and character of government itself. To neglect the money-and-media election complex or, worse yet, to imagine that progressive forces can compete within it will make the 2012 election season look like 2010 on steroids. Determined and dramatic responses are the only options if we hope to maintain anything more than the remnants of a functioning democracy.
The immediate cause of the crisis was the Supreme Court's January 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which wiped away a century of campaign finance regulations designed to prevent corporations and business alliances from using their immense resources to buy the results that best serve their interests. There was bipartisan shock at the ruling, with protest across the spectrum. National Voting Rights Institute founder John Bonifaz declared that the freeing of corporations to tap general treasury funds would allow them to spend so freely that they could "effectively own our democracy."
The critique was right, but even serious analysts tended to underestimate the speed with which corporate interests and wealthy conservatives would take advantage of the severe damage done to campaign finance laws. The corporate intervention was unapologetic. "The big three stepping into the batter's box are the financial services industry, the energy industry and the health insurance industry," chirped veteran GOP operative Scott Reed, whose Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity spent millions, perhaps tens of millions, this fall on thousands of commercials attacking Democratic lawmakers in battleground states all over the country. Reed's operation was identified by the Media Matters Action Network as a "small fry" player among the more than sixty nonparty groups that by late October had paid for nearly 150,000 commercials and an untold number of direct-mail attacks in a frenzy of spending that would make the 2010 cycle (price tag: $4 billion and counting) more expensive than either the 2006 midterms or the 2004 presidential race.
To be sure, Democrats tried to play the game and raise corporate money too, but the balance was off from the start; by one measure, that of the Center for Media and Democracy, "spending by outside interest groups [was] up at least 500 percent since the last midterm election, with pro-Republican groups outspending those favoring Democrats by seven-to-one."
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To some extent, this is a story as old as the nation itself. Founding father John Jay thought "those who own the country ought to govern it." The battle to establish a credible system of "one person, one vote" instead of "one dollar, one vote" has been a running theme in American history. The stakes have always been the same: the less democratic our elections, the more corrupt our governance. But the current moment sees the country accelerating toward the edge of a cliff. "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both," observed Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. America is being put to the Brandeis test: democracy or plutocracy. The money-and-media election complex is creating a radically different electoral landscape than anything Americans have known since the Gilded Age. That landscape is characterized, pundits tell us, by an "enthusiasm gap." No kidding. Americans are not stupid. They knew their relatively paltry contributions, and even their votes, were unlikely to stop a $4 billion onslaught. To those bankrolling the system, voter cynicism and apathy are welcome. The more that the 2008 surge of youth participation in electoral politics dissipates, the better for them. Their interests are best served by narrowing the range of debate and participation, since that makes it easier to buy the government. As much as commentators like Jon Meacham might want to believe that "we are now living with a political class which has a financial and cultural interest in conflict rather than in governing," the hard truth is that we have a corporate class that funds electoral conflict for the purpose of forging a political class that will govern in its interest.
The emerging money-and-media election complex is perfectly designed to make participants conform or suffer the consequences. It should come as no surprise that some of the most troubling results of 2010 involved the defeats of independent players of both parties who had battled hardest for clean politics and ethical government—Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the leading progressive Democratic reformer, was defeated, as was Representative Mike Castle, a moderate Republican beaten in Delaware's GOP Senate primary by Tea Party heroine Christine O'Donnell. Nor should it get better in 2012. "It's a bigger prize in 2012, and that's changing the White House," says Robert Duncan, chair of American Crossroads. "We've planted the flag for permanence, and we believe we will play a major role for 2012."
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But it's not just corporations and consultants who are setting the new agenda. The most important yet least-recognized piece of the money-and-media election complex is the commercial broadcasting industry, which just had its best money-making election season ever. Political advertising has become an enormous cash cow for it—roughly two-thirds of the campaign spending this year flowed into the coffers of TV stations; the final figure is likely to be well above $2 billion. Whereas in the 1990s the average commercial TV station received about 3 percent of its revenues from campaign ads, this year campaign money could account for as much as 20 percent. And station owners are not missing a beat; thirty-second spots that went for $2,000 in 2008 were jacked up to $5,000 this year, according to the Los Angeles Times. Much of this money will go to stations owned by a handful of Fortune 500 firms. No wonder station owners oppose campaign finance reform; their lobby role in Washington is similar to the NRA's in battling bans on assault weapons.
Yet commercial broadcasters receive monopoly licenses for their scarce channels at no charge from the government under the condition that they serve the public interest. By any account, the most important role of our media is to make the electoral system serve the voters, who, as surveys continue to demonstrate, rely on local TV as their main source for news. However, local TV covers far less than it did two or three decades ago; according to the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, a thirty-minute newscast at election time has more political advertising than campaign news. Even when politics does get covered, the focus, increasingly, is on "analyzing" ads. And the cumulative effect of endless advertising overwhelms what little remains of independent on-air coverage. What incentive do commercial stations have to cover politics when they can force candidates and players to pay for it? Nice work if you can get it.
This contradiction is magnified by the aforementioned decline of political journalism across all media. If the United States had a vibrant and credible news media, the problem of the money-and-media election complex would be less pressing, as citizens could use news coverage and dismiss much of the brazen deception of ads. Instead, our news media, in decline for decades, is in free fall [see Nichols and McChesney, "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers," April 6, 2009]. The shuttering of dozens of papers and the wholesale layoff of tens of thousands of journalists and support staffers, the shuttering of Washington and statehouse bureaus and the shift of radio and cable TV from traditional campaign coverage to one-sided talk formats that often reinforce rather than sort through the spin have allowed money to speak more loudly than ever before. New-media initiatives are encouraging, but they have not begun to fill the void, in large part because few have developed business models that can pay for serious independent journalism.