“Change is expected, normal and necessary,” we’re told. “Change is good,” we’re told. But, while the sea change taking place in American political campaigns today is “expected,” it is neither good nor necessary. And it’s undercutting our democracy in very dangerous ways.
Many of us in the “political junkie” media have been warning of the repercussions of the badly flawed “Citizen’s United” decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. It allows anonymous individuals, corporations and assorted political money machines to flood our political campaigns with unlimited amounts of dollars. For emphasis, the key words there are “unlimited,” “dollars” and “anonymous.”
At the moment, only two states have had primary elections. But ten’s of millions of dollars have already been spent – anonymously – with more states – and more anonymous millions – yet to come. Thanks to SCOTUS, we are awash in huge amounts of uncontrolled cash from special interests trying to buy God knows what. And God knows who. At the moment, it’s Republicans. But that’s only because Democrats haven’t had their turn. It is a bi-partisan problem and – in my opinion – a serious national threat.
Chris Matthews – one of TV’s most outspoken talking heads – called such spending in the first two primary states a “Dresden fire-bombing.” He was referring to the World War II Army Air Force’s merciless bombing of one of Germany’s large industrial cities which was eventually reduced to rubble by the relentless pounding.
I’m one of those who think Matthews nailed it.
Unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, you haven’t seen it firsthand and you haven’t felt the relentlessness of it. Billboards, yard signs, direct mailers, Internet and wall-to-wall radio and TV ads that block out the sun. Makes the normal, not-terribly-political citizen envy a groundhog.
While there’s been the usual candidate outpouring of campaign messages, the largest share of what Iowans and New Hampshirites have endured in these first two elections since “Citizen’s United” has been the “Super Pac” products. From the ones I’ve seen, in my judgement, those anonymously-financed propaganda pieces have been – for the most part – negative, shrill and many without factual messages or content.
And therein lies the major flaw. No accountability. Whether far right or far left or smack in the middle, the one certainty of this mess is the donors/sponsors are spewing self-serving messages. Anonymously. Claims made can’t be checked. Facts – if any – can’t be verified. Names of those willing to part with personal or corporate millions can’t be discovered.
They can look just like regular political ads but can say anything about anyone – make any claim without basis – sabotage any campaign with impunity. They can influence millions of people with lies and damned lies. And they can’t be held accountable for liable, slander or any other legal recourse.
Suppose someone was paying for advertising in your local paper making unfounded charges about your character. Accusing you of saying things or doing things you hadn’t. Suppose the paper owner wouldn’t tell you because a court decision said he didn’t have to. Make you mad? You betcha! But that’s what’s being done for your vote.
Mass media messaging works. A good chunk of our nation’s economy rests on that premise. Ask any car company, soap-maker, department store or cell phone carrier. Millions of Americans buy their products – without more information than they see in advertising- because names are familiar, messages are convincing, they want something new. Happens hundreds of millions of times. Every day. Day after day.
If it works to get you to spend money for a certain product, it’ll work for your vote. That’s what they’re paying for.
In the two states that have voted thus far, tens of millions of anonymous dollars have already been spent. Dozens more states will have primaries or nominating conventions. What will be the final dollar total be? Likely, hundreds of millions. And for what? To buy what? To buy whom? Bought by whom? Why?
Money and politics are inseparable. Always have been Always will be. We’ve survived thus far. But the “Dresden fire-bombing” of uncounted – and unaccounted for – millions of anonymous dollars is surely undermining our electoral process. It’s no longer “one man, one vote.” It’s “one ABC Super Pac, one president.” One senator. One representative. One congress.
No individual – no citizen group of individuals – can change what the Supreme Court did. Not this time. The damage is done. And more will be before the November election. If “Citizens United” is to be overturned – and it must be – resolution has to come in the courts. It will never – repeat never – come if left to politicians.
The late Rep. Mo Udall – one of my political heroes – once told me “Every member of Congress got here by learning the rules and winning by them. Don’t look for anyone there to change them.”
I hoped he was wrong when he said that 30 years ago. But 30 years hence, I’m afraid he wasn’t.