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.