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The Low Spark of Well-Heeled Boys | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The Low Spark of Well-Heeled Boys

My new Think Again column is called “Our Broken Political System,” and it’s really about what a much better country Canada is than this one. You can find it here.

Alter-reviews:
I didn’t go see any live music this week, sorry. And I don’t have a time machine, but if I did, one of the things I would use it for, after killing Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and teaching the old Jews in Florida how to use their voting machines, would be go to the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago on November 22nd, 1981 at the Muddy Watters show when Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Ian Stewart showed up together with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and an unfortunately soused Lefty Dizz, who eventually gets pushed off the stage, belatedly I might add. Still, it’s all pretty cool and new you can see it on DVD and listen to it later on cd, that is if you buy the package which you can find here.

You can also watch the dvd (or bluray, in my case) and listen to the cd of Jimi Hendrix and a reformed Band Of Gypsys at the Berkeley theater in 1970.  The show drove a lot of people crazy and it’s kind of a mess but I’m told it’s a big improvement, aurally, over previous editions of the same show. I’d use my time machine for this too, but it would not be that high on my list. More here.

Now here’s Reed.

The Low Spark of Well-Heeled Boys: How Citizens United Undermines the Press and Democracy
by Reed Richardson

Democracies as large as ours routinely suffer from an electoral paradox—voters know the least about those elections where they can have the most impact. We tend to care more about who’s running for president rather than city council or state legislator, in other words, even though the latter often has a more significant impact on our day-to-day lives than the former. How low-information voters make their choice on election day (providing they vote at all), then, can provide valuable insight as to how to make our democracy more engaged and vibrant.

This past week, David Schleicher, an electoral law professor at George Mason University, makes the argument in an Atlantic essay that many voters now rely upon national-level political cues to inform their votes in local races. The common piece of ballot box shorthand, of course, is a political party label. This is not exactly a revelation. Twenty-five years ago, a House back-bencher by the name of Newt Gingrich was utilizing his political action committee, GOPAC, to sell thousands of cassette tapes to budding GOP candidates, training them how to parrot national-party talking points in winning local races.

One consequence of this trend, Schleicher says, is that campaigns are frequently uncompetitive at the local and state level. What’s more, he points out that these electoral outcomes have become divorced from actual in-office performance of local politicians and instead ride upon the larger electoral tides at work in Washington, D.C.

“The implications of the mismatch problem are dramatic, as it leaves very little space for local accountability or representation…State legislatures are the workhorses of policy-making in this country, producing our contract and tort law, marriage policy, much of our criminal law, and lots more. But the content and effects of that policy don't have much effect on state elections.”

Schleicher offers up some interesting recommendations to counter this low-information environment, but they all suffer from being fairly narrow, structural changes. What he notably, and frustratingly, leaves out of his analysis is any discussion of the broader, two-fold dynamic that is really exacerbating this problem right now—a frightening diminution of local media coupled with a simultaneous explosion of outside political spending.

Thanks to seemingly endless cycles of corporate mergers and acquisitions as well as the ongoing staff and publishing cutbacks they inevitably produce, local news organizations across the country now find themselves in a vicious cycle of trying to do more and more with less and less. Often, statehouse bureaus are among those on the chopping block. Sure, independent state political blogs and local online media hubs have sprung up to fill the void, but they too suffer from a lack of sufficient resources. And though the press has increasingly become inured of the importance of local and state politics, well-heeled conservatives have recognized their “workhorse” nature, as Schleicher calls it, and increasingly stepped into the information breech come election time.  

Weak though they may have been, the McCain-Feingold campaign reform measures passed 10 years ago had at least set a legal, if not philosophical, precedent that more money in politics isn’t something our democracy should encourage. The 2010 Citizens United ruling, however, ripped that idea apart and set it afire using hundred-dollar bills. Still, Matt Bai in this week’s New York Times Magazine tries to tell us that the conventional wisdom about the real effect of Citizens United upon our democracy is “at best, overly simplistic. And in many respects, it’s just plain wrong.” To prove his point, he cites statistics that show outside campaign spending hasn’t risen as fast between 2008 and 2012 as it did between 2004 and 2008. And there’s no doubt that, as he explains, there is a law of diminishing returns at play in presidential campaigns—what the Romney campaign will get out of spending its last $100 million this fall is probably very little in extra votes.

Still, three-quarters of the way into Bai’s article, we come across this passage:

“It’s worth asking just how much an advantage all of this outside money actually confers. The greatest impact of this year’s imbalance in outside money will be felt on the state level, where a lot of House seats and control of the Senate hang in the balance, and where a sharp gust of advertising can often blow the results in one direction or another. But a presidential campaign is different, focusing as it does on a dozen or so pivotal states and a limited number of advertising markets. There’s probably a limit to how many 30-second spots all of these groups can cram onto cable stations during late-night showings of ‘Turner & Hooch.’”   

Did you catch that? Right there in the second sentence, he rockets past a critically important point, but then never brings it up again. Essentially, he stumbles over the fact that his article, its myopic gaze firmly fixed on the presidential race, has spent almost all of its intellectual energy examining the least important example of Citizens United’s long-term impact upon our democracy. In other words, when it comes to winning the White House, one can likely find enough rich liberals (like, say, Lucius Fox) and like-minded progressive advocacy groups to make the funding race competitive, but when it comes to planting our nation’s electoral seed corn, as it were, just one sufficiently generous right-winger really can sway local or state elections.

It’s already underway in every corner of this country. But for a prime example, look no further than North Carolina, a state whose political agenda is quickly being overwhelmed by one rich conservative, Art Pope. Over the past few election cycles, Pope and his family have engaged in something of an electoral onslaught, funneling millions of ad dollars through outside political advocacy groups to elect rock-ribbed, anti-government conservatives. These groups, though ostensibly independent, are little more than cat’s paws for Pope’s extreme, right-wing agenda, since they depend upon his largesse for nearly all of their funding. And as the most recent midterm elections frighteningly demonstrated, Pope’s dumping of six or seven figures into key state legislature races resulted in nothing less than an electoral coup:

“Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focussed his spending, were routed.”

In fact, the same New Yorker story finds a local Democratic political consultant from the state saying that the local Republican Party has basically become a wholly owned subsidiary of Pope. “The Republican agenda in North Carolina is really Art Pope’s agenda. He sets it, he funds it, and he directs the efforts to achieve it. The candidates are just fronting for him. There are so many people in North Carolina beholden to Art Pope—it undermines the democratic process.”

This doesn’t mean Pope is content to just dabble in state-level politics, of course. State legislatures, after all, draw Congressional districts and, by all accounts, the new Republican majorities have done right by their Capitol Hill GOP kin. (Schleicher recently authored another, interesting study that recommended including media organizations in the calculus when drawing Congressional districts.)

In addition, one of Pope’s shadow organizations, Civitas Action, which, throughout its history has received 97 percent of its funding from Pope, frequently commissions in-state polls on federal elections. Their results, to no great shock, frequently lean to the right, feeding a narrative in the press that Republican candidates’ enjoy greater support than in reality. As the internals of this recent Romney-Obama poll strongly suggest, the methodology Civitas sometimes uses to get these numbers involves some ridiculous, even dishonest assumptions. For example, the notion that Romney could be beating Obama by 29 points among Hispanics when the latter is leading the former by 50 points in another recent poll of 13 battleground states, which includes North Carolina.

When confronted in the New Yorker piece, Pope trots out the same humble shtick that colored the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling: He just wants to participate in our democracy and, echoing Schleicher’s lament above, assist voters, is that so wrong?

“Pope sees himself as a reformer. The money that he spends on politics, he said, strengthens American democracy, by providing voters with more information and more choices: “Most of the efforts that I or my company have supported have been to get the message out on the issues, so that voters can make an informed choice.’”

Pope’s actual ads, you’ll no doubt be shocked, shocked to learn, commonly traffic in ugly stereotypes, gratuitous spin, and outright lies. Absent a strong public corrective, either from a similarly well-funded opponent’s own advertising or a robust, assertive press willing to document and then take apart the distortions, this kind of ruthless messaging serves to corrode the discourse. What’s more, it chills future political participation on the part of the right-wing’s ideological opponents. After all, what challenger would want to subject him or herself to a seven-figure character assassination just to run against a conservative political benefactor’s chosen candidate?

But it’s not just budding politicos and the public that suffers. Local media organizations can find themselves increasingly threatened by all this outside political spending as well. The risk, in fact, is two-fold.

On one hand, an influx of millions of dollars of campaign advertising can provide a much-needed windfall for newspapers and local TV stations struggling with slashed budgets. And indeed, many media organizations in the battleground states are enjoying a banner year right now. But as campaign advertising begins to account for more and more of local TV station’s revenue, the age-old temptation to shade editorial content or enforce a contrived "balance" in coverage to avoid turning off that lucrative ad spigot grows. Consider this—If Art Pope calls a local TV station owner in Raleigh or newspaper publisher in Greensboro to complain about a news story and warns he might pull all of his ads unless his hand-picked candidate gets treated more “fairly,” what do you think would happen next? Would Pope be told to go pound sand or would that station owner next pick up the phone and call the news director for a conversation about “objectivity?”

At the same time, news organizations should recognize that all this ad money also represents something of a poisoned chalice. There’s a reason political ad buyers pay top dollar to run their messaging adjacent to news broadcasts. Voters who tune in during these times are psychologically primed to accept new information. But with local news providing less and less actual political news, the repetitive, right-wing messaging viewers are subjected to during the commercial breaks can begin to serve as a de facto substitute. Rather than counter-programming the news, what Citizens United has done is open the door to a tidal wave of campaign advertising that can easily supplant the news for low-information voters.

In the end, to bemoan the fact that Citizens United has transformed the presidential campaign from a $500-million endeavor to a roughly $1-billion one is to miss the point. The ruling’s real, damaging legacy is being felt elsewhere, down at local races that are not only increasingly nationalized but monetized as well and in local newsrooms that can’t or won’t keep up with the distorted information flooding their communities. But before long, ideas and principles won’t have any significant role at all in our electoral politics. Instead, we’ll have arrived at a point where the only currency that matters in our democracy’s marketplace of ideas is, well, currency itself.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

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