§ Prospects for legislative remedies are slim, perhaps nil. Supreme Court decisions that began with the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling have just about eliminated the government’s ability to restrict the flow of big money into politics. Citizens United got the headlines, and deservedly so, as it broke down century-old barriers to the direct purchase of elections by corporations. But it was part of a long trend. And it is not finished: this fall, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court will entertain arguments—from Mitch McConnell and others—for scrapping most, and perhaps all, remaining campaign contribution limits. The High Court is on an activist course that appears to have two goals: making it easier for big money to influence elections and making it harder for citizens to vote by undermining the structural integrity of the Voting Rights Act. The appointment of a liberal justice could tip the balance on many issues, but the fact is that the Court has already moved in a decidedly anti-democratic direction.
§ Just as the courts have become unreliable defenders of the public interest when it comes to elections, so too have much of the media. Journalism is in crisis. The demands of investors and a steady decline in advertising revenue have led to the high-profile closing of newspapers and the low-profile contraction of newsroom staff, which has left vast areas of politics and governance uncovered. The darkness is so deep that we witness increasing instances of flawed and unelectable candidates for high office—a US senator from South Carolina, the lieutenant governor of Illinois—being exposed only after they are nominated. The little coverage there is often confers “legitimacy” based on fundraising ability and analyzes ads rather than ideas. A quarter-century after the major television networks ceded control of presidential debates to a consortium operated by the former chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, much of TV campaign coverage boils down to spin points recited by partisan talking heads.
§ The idea that the Internet would be a permanent lie detector preventing politicians from telling different messages to different audiences has been turned on its head. The National Security Agency surveillance scandal reminds us that the government has access to immense amounts of “Big Data.” So do corporations and politicians. As Bloomberg Businessweek noted after the 2012 election, cutting-edge campaigns like Obama’s are “unifying vast commercial and political databases to understand the proclivities of individual voters.” Indeed, they’re getting so good at it that, after the president was re-elected, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, helped Obama’s Big Data team establish a start-up firm to teach corporations how to do what the campaigns did first. We are entering a new political age in which candidates and parties will maintain extraordinary dossiers on prospective voters. They will tailor messages to demographic groups, to donors and ultimately to individual voters. Obama had the advantage in 2012, but Republicans have reached for their checkbooks and plan to leapfrog the Democrats in 2014. Are there any safeguards? None that we can see.
§ The void created by the contraction of journalism has been filled by a slurry of negative ads so foul that they reduce voter turnout, as part of a broader voter-suppression strategy by political players who prefer small, easily managed electorates. Instead of objecting, the owners of TV stations shave minutes off local newscasts to make space for more ads; in battleground states, political money has become the mother’s milk of local television. Is it any wonder that some of the loudest critics of campaign finance reform are the media conglomerates that profit by giving us less news and more propaganda?
We do not use the word “propaganda” casually. Countries that rank far higher than the United States on The Economist’s Democracy Index bar paid political ads because they view them as propaganda. Those countries also provide dramatically more support for public media to ensure a broader range of voices and deeper political analysis. We need to recognize the dangers of a system in which voters get their information not from a free press but from a money-and-media election complex that seeks to maintain the free flow of cash into its coffers—and to protect the interests of the sources of that cash.
We have entered a new Gilded Age in which the gap between rich and poor is widening rapidly. Our politics threatens to accelerate the redistribution of wealth upward with the privatization of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Postal Service and even public education. Instead of calling attention to that threat—and to the need for fundamental regulation of Wall Street and corporate power—much of our media collaborate with the political class to depict our choice as being between the cruel and usual austerity of Paul Ryan and the kinder and gentler austerity of Ryan’s Democratic colleagues.
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