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Perpetual National Elections Make the Top 1% Richer

The presidential campaign season keeps getting longer, and more expensive, allowing the uber-rich to effectively control our democracy.

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In the meantime, a national machinery has been set up to staff that perpetual campaign.  By early October (again 2011, not 2012), according to the New York Times, the Obama campaign had opened offices in 15 states, had paid employees in 38 states, and had a Chicago headquarters with a paid staff of 200.  Thirteen months before the actual election, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee had already shelled out “close to $87 million in operating costs.”  At this point, there is no Republican equivalent, as the many Republican candidates are still involved in the struggle for the nomination, while Obama, as vulnerable a president as we’ve seen in our time, miraculously lacks even a symbolic primary challenger.

Money Talks

At the heart of the ever-expanding presidential campaign sit the media, especially television -- especially those ads.  In 1996, when Republican Robert Dole ran against President Bill Clinton, the two camps spent an estimated $113 million for ads, almost all for television.  In the 2008 election for all federal offices, $2.7 billion went into television advertising.

This year, when the media is feeling the pinch of hard times, $3 billion dollars in prospective TV ads must look like manna from heaven.  In fact -- though no one in the media ever writes about it -- this has to represent one of the great conflict of interest stories of our time, maybe of all time.  The pundits, commentators, reporters, and news announcers who once again seem so intent on convincing us that this will be the election of the century are essentially drumming up business for the owners of their networks or cable stations who will profit handsomely, even staggeringly, from the dollars that those glued eyeballs bring in.

So Fox, for instance, is now a constant debate central for Republican candidates and is, in turn, pulling in advertising at a rate ahead of the 2008 campaign cycle.  “Like CNN, MSNBC and others,” writes Dan Hirschhorn of Ad Age, “Fox News is set to benefit from the proliferation of third-party political and issue advocacy groups including Super PACs and 527s, which can afford national airtime and are gearing up to be major players in 2012 politics.”

And like any reality show, for this one to succeed so far ahead of its appointed season, you need the constant drama of contestants being ushered on and off stage, of spectacular rises and no less spectacular collapses.  Hence, the stories of Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, which (if you were of a conspiratorial mind) might almost seem too good (or bad) to be true.

So far, the media’s election blitz has proven remarkably successful.  The audience for the very first Republican debate of 2011 almost doubled the audience for the first Republican debate of the 2008 campaign.  And as this round of debates has gained steam, it has nearly doubled its own initial numbers.  Meanwhile, the media version of the election campaign is visibly becoming a too-big-to-fail juggernaut.  In the process, it seems that we, the citizens, the viewers, have been given an election life sentence.  Our job is to sit and watch while the action happens elsewhere.

It’s true that, on November 6, 2012, Americans will enter voting booths and choose a candidate for president, and that makes this an “election.”  But thinking of it that way won’t get you far.  It’s also true, that, on January 20, 2013, a newly elected president will step into the Oval Office.  What any of this has to do with democracy, as opposed to spectacle, influence, corruption, the power of the incredibly wealthy to pay for and craft messages, and the power of media owners to enhance their profits is certainly an open question. Think, at least, how literally the old phrase "money talks" is being updated every time you hear the candidates, or see their ads, or get a robocall from one of them, or receive a geo-targeted mobile ad of theirs on your iPhone or Android.

 
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