August 19, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Michael McGehee:
Presidential elections are carefully crafted public relations events. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into a single campaign, and the money is used to hire firms to brand candidates and lay out a strategy as if they are a commercial product, and not a democratically-elected representative of the general population. As one illustrative example, in 2008 Barack Obama won a top marketing award for his successful campaign.
To make our nation’s democratic matters worse, a troubling revelation came last month in the New York Times when it was reported that “the press office [of the Romney and Obama campaigns] has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name,” so much so that “quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.” The article went on to state that, “Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree,” and once they submit their pieces for review “[t]he verdict from the campaign — an operation that prides itself on staying consistently on script — is often no, Barack Obama does not approve this message.”
Despite this Orwellian control over what we call “news,” most Americans are aware that when it comes to politics, politicians lie and money is power. ABloomberg National Poll conducted March 4-7, 2011 found that between labor unions and corporate America 63% said the latter had more political power. Around the same time, Gallop Poll found that 71% of those polled said lobbyists had too much power, and 67% said the same for major corporations (including banks and financial institutions). This goes a long way towards explaining why more than 80% of Americans think government should pay attention to opinions, and why a huge majority also think the government cares more about the interests of the rich and corporations than the working class.
Another threat to our democracy is that very little media attention is paid to how opinions reflected in polls are shaped. For example, there has been tens of thousands of articles published at the New York Times over the last year on the campaigns of Mitt Romney and President Obama. Yet there has only been one published on Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and that piece largely avoided her platform (which consists of a plan to get full-employment, green jobs, living wages, prioritizing renewable energy, tuition-free college, Medicare-for-all, affordable housing, reigning in the banks, cutting military spending by half, ending corporate personhood, abolishing the electoral college, taking private money out of elections, and so on), and instead chose to paint her as “a danger to their natural allies, the Democrats.”
There is also much less attention given to exploring how the influence of money dominates the political process. This is likely what led Alex Carey, an Australian writer on corporate propaganda, to write in his book, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy; Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty:
The key political problems confronting the United States have neither changed nor ameliorated since Professor Robert Dahl defined them in 1959. “How much,” he asked, “of the generally, favorable attitudes of American towards business [and the consequent] absence of any well-defined alternative can be attributed toward deliberate efforts to manipulate attitudes?”
It’s not just our attitudes towards business, however, but towards our government and society itself. The American public has considerably unfavorable views of government and business. In fact, it is rare for Congressto ever have approval ratings in the twenty percentiles; it’s currently at 10%. And while the media and opinion polls largely ignore third party candidates and their platforms—the Times article mentioned above on Jill Stein noted that “Ms. Stein’s problem, then, is of the chicken-and-egg variety: to get national name recognition, she needs television exposure in debates,” but that ”she does not qualify for debates because of a lack of national name recognition”—there is no organized social power to counter the trends, and disgruntled citizens still vote in large numbers—much larger than the 10% of those who hold favorable opinions of Congress.
An American political science professor, Thomas Ferguson, has a theory that explains how our political system works. In his book on the topic, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems, Ferguson writes that, “Political organizations are (sometimes very complex) investments; that while they need small amounts of aid and commitment from many people, most of their major endorsements, money, and media attention typically come as direct or indirect results of their ability to attract heavyweight investors,” and that, “As a consequence not even former presidents with enormous personal popularity like Theodore Roosevelt could run insurgent campaigns without support from investors like U.S. Steel or investment banker George Perkins.” What it all comes down to, Ferguson writes, is that, “If all major investors oppose discussing a particular issue, then neither party is likely to pick the issue up—no matter how many little investors or noninvestors might benefit—not because of any active collusion between parties but because no effective constituency exists to force the issue on the public agenda.”
More recently Ferguson has written in The Washington Spectator about how a ”tidal wave of cash has structurally transformed Congress” to where “our Congressional parties now post prices for key slots on committees” to the tune of ”$200,000 down and the same amount later, through fundraising.”
Ferguson is right that “astronomical campaign-finance spending totals don’t tell the full story,” but it is still something the Americans doesn’t understand how severe of a problem it is. Both parties are beholden to the interests of Capital. Elections are costly events, and even after them there is money needed for politicians to buy their political status so they can “hunt up new sources of cash in hope of advancing their careers and winning reelection.”
And Ferguson is also right to say that “democratic legitimacy is far from the only value at risk as the 2012 election approaches.” Because despite living in a “globalized world that is increasingly nervous, however irrationally, about budget deficits and sovereign debt repayments, it would be a mistake to underestimate how much havoc a small group of zealots could wreak in the next few months, as taxes and the budget promise to redefine American politics.”
And this is where Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan comes in. For conservatives who keep up with politics, they are aware of Ryan and his positions on spending and debt. Perhaps what is less known is any constructive criticism. RollingStone magazine’s Matt Taibi referred to Ryan last year as “the Republican Party’s latest entrant in the seemingly endless series of young, prickish, over-coiffed, anal-retentive deficit Robespierres they’ve sent to the political center stage in the last decade or so, [who] has come out with his new budget plan.” And of course, the “new budget plan” is the usual Republican attack on social programs for the working poor, especially Medicare and Social Security. The problem is as the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) recently noted: “while the press often present Ryan’s budget plan as the purest expression of his intellect and convictions, it’s not often noted that Ryan the politician has voted for a number of budget-busters–from the Bush tax cuts to prescription drug benefits to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” In another recent article, and to add further insult to injury, FAIR writes on Ryan’s supposed “self-reliance” while paying his way through college with Social Security benefits:
Nor does the rest of Ryan’s story do much to bolster a “self-reliant” narrative. He used those Social Security benefits to learn about libertarian economics at publicly financed Miami University, and after college got a job on the public payroll as a Capitol Hill staffer (American Prospect, 8/14/12). His only adult job in the for-profit private sector, in fact, was a year spent working as a marketing consultant at his extended family’s construction business–which is also hard to frame as a sign of “self-reliance.” (As Salon noted–8/14/12–the Ryan family business has relied heavily on government contracts over the years.)
Returning to his RollingStone article, Taibi goes on to explain that Republicans only put on the “appearance” of wanting deficit reduction. “The problem,” Taibi writes, “is that to actually make significant cuts in what is left of the ‘welfare state,’ one has to cut Medicare and Medicaid, programs overwhelmingly patronized by white people, and particularly white seniors.” Arguing that the Republicans won’t likely do more than talk about gutting the programs, Taibi says that “when the time comes to actually pull the trigger on the proposed reductions, the whippersnappers are quietly removed from the stage and life goes on as usual, i.e. with massive deficit spending on defense, upper-class tax cuts, bailouts, corporate subsidies, and big handouts to Pharma and the insurance industries.”
Though Taibi doesn’t point this out, Democrats are notorious for a similar tactic. While campaigning in 2007-2008 Barack Obama made numerous appeals to labor and single-payer health care reforms, but once in office he quickly abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act, single-payer reform, and more. Instead what we got was health care reform that cemented private interests more than former President Bush’s Medicare reforms in 2003, and the National Defense Authorization Act, which makes Bush’s PATRIOT Act look friendly to civil liberties. Leftist writer Paul Street, who has been writing on Obama since before the 2008 presidential election, often quoted a comment from David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, who told the New York Times in late 2008 that Obama utilized “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.”
This strategy of rhetorically appeasing a party’s base is only part of why Romney selected Ryan as his running mate. Another reason—beyond Paul’s willingness to charge people to attend his town hall meetings and then kick out anyone who asked him tough questions—may be found in recent opinion polls which show that Paul Ryan is virtually unknown to many Americans. ACNN/ORC poll conducted August 7-8, 2012 found that 38% never heard of him, with only 27% having a favorable opinion. An ABC/Washington Postpoll conducted August 8-10, 2012 found 45% had no opinion of Congressman Ryan, with only 23% having a favorable opinion. And a USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted on August 12, 2012 found that 39% didn’t know of Ryan, while 25% favored him.
What does all of this mean? For starters, our democracy is severely undermined when private money can influence the democratic process. And with the growing gap between the rich and poor, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, the class element in politics, or the marketizing of elections, is becoming more pronounced.
That journalists for the country’s top news outlets find themselves in a position where the only way to stay on top of important events is by trading their integrity for access to “the brains of the president’s top strategists” only compounds the problem.
It also likely means that the Romney campaign, conscious of their ability to control press coverage, picked a fresh new face that most people had never heard of, but gives all the right “appearances” to their base, so that a positive image can be constructed. While such a deceptive strategy is certainly undesirable for a functioning democracy, readers should be reminded that this is also the tale of Barack Obama’s ascendancy to power: a virtually unknown politician quickly emerges and finds himself competing for a place in the world’s most powerful institution: the White House.