Thursday, December 02, 2010
The Money & Media Election Complex
Great piece by John Nichols and Robert McChesney on the Citizens United aftermath and the accelerating death of democracy.
Ultimately, however, Americans have to get serious about addressing the Citizens United ruling. We have no problem with legislative remedies, especially if they embody proposals like those advanced by the Sunlight Foundation to establish online transparency at every level of influence, from independent expenditures to lobbying to bundled campaign contributions. We agree with Lisa Gilbert of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, who says Representative Grayson has proposed "pieces of good policy" with his Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act, which would impose a 500 percent excise tax on corporate contributions to political committees and on corporate expenditures on political advocacy campaigns; his Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act, which would require public companies to report what they spend to influence opinion on any matter other than the promotion of their goods and services; and his End Political Kickbacks Act, which would restrict contributions by government contractors. And we have no doubt that Grayson's advocacy for these reforms helps explain why "independent" groups spent more than $1.2 million on attack ads targeting him.Yep, and now he's gone. Mission accomplished.
However, we don't see any way to avoid the requirement of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Representative Donna Edwards has proposed a sound one, backed by the Free Speech for People campaign. Another approach, proposed by Move to Amend, would begin the process at the state level, where grassroots activists may have more of an opening to demand that legislatures call for an amendment. It's not necessary to choose a specific strategy at this point, but we do have to recognize that the money-and-media election complex defined the 2010 election, and that its reach is extending to 2012. Taking it on will require boldness, creativity and determination. We will be told it is impossible to beat, but we're with Lisa Graves, the former Justice Department lawyer who as executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy has become a leader in the fight for a constitutional amendment. She says, "If we don't seize it as an opportunity because it's so discouraging, they win."Emphases mine. Unfortunately, I think we can forget about Obama shouting about this from the rooftops or from anywhere else; he seems pretty determined to be a creature of the complex rather than a challenger to it.
Even if only out of self-interest, this is what Obama and his Democratic allies should have been talking about during the 2010 campaign and what they should be shouting about now—not with vague rumblings about contributions from foreign corporations but with shout-it-from-the-rooftops populist rage at a threat to democracy every bit as serious as the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower identified. His charge to Americans with regard to the machinery of military dominance—"We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes"—translates with chilling precision to the new media and money machinery of political dominance.
Scholars of American history have acknowledged for a long time that the United States is far from a true democracy, or even an especially effective representative democracy. Most political decisions are made with precious little input by average citizens. What the government does with wealthy individuals and powerful corporate interests is largely removed from popular control. This is part of the reason voter turnout has for so long been among the lowest in the world. But two things give us confidence in our system. First, we have core civil liberties, especially the right to freedom of speech. And second, we have elections, as flawed as they may be, and that gives the citizenry the periodic capacity to replace whoever is in power with someone else. It is our ultimate and last remaining check.
The money-and-media election complex has transformed longstanding problems into an existential crisis: we are about to lose the democratic promise of elections. It is hard to see how our cherished freedoms can then survive, except to the extent that they are trivial and unthreatening to those in power. What hangs in the balance is democracy itself, along with the promise of the American experiment.
Insightful Nichols/McChesney conversation on last Sunday's Media Matters too, by the way.