Welcome to 'Crazytown': An unprecedented frenzy in Georgia shows how democracy breaks down
On the eve of the general election, Russ Silva and his family, like many fellow Georgians, watched as the results started slowly pouring across his television set. It was becoming more and more apparent that Georgia was destined to become a focal point for the entire country, not just because it was a contested battleground state between Donald Trump and Joseph Biden, but also because it was setting the stage for an unprecedented situation.
As election night came to an end with many results still uncertain, Silva let out a sigh as he bemoaned to AlterNet what he suspected was inevitable: "Now I pretty much know I'm going to be barraged by endless ads."
By the time incumbent Senator David Perdue's slim advantage over challenger Jon Ossoff dipped to 49.9997 percent of the vote on November 5, it became all but official: a double-header runoff for two Senate seats and ultimately control of the chamber was going to happen in early January.
John Nichols, a veteran journalist, explained to AlterNet that, "We've never had a circumstance like this before with two seats up-in-the air while two seats are also needed for control of the Senate in two runoff elections before an inauguration with these kinds of stakes at play."
Unsurprisingly then, Georgia's unique double-header runoff has rapidly become ground zero for a legion of political consultants, pollsters and a blizzard of television advertising.
"There's a whole industry that does this from Washington and everyone is able to go to their donors and say, 'hey, I need 20 million dollars,' and then that money will then be found," says Nichols.
This unprecedented spending frenzy led Christian-right activist Ralph Reed to dub Georgia "crazytown" to the New York Times. It became that after Democrats suffered rough defeats in North Carolina (a race they lost by a mere 1.8 points), Iowa (where various polls showed the Democratic challenger leading through election night), Kentucky (where tons of money was spent in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader) and most devastatingly, in Maine (where the New York Times profiled the Republican incumbent, Susan Collins, as being a dinosaur out of touch with more polarized times and quite vulnerable to defeat).
Because of this string of defeats, Georgia's old southern-styled campaign system, which was originally fashioned to advantage white Democratic candidates in the Jim Crow era, wound up having greater relevance than ever before. No more than a mere percentage point separated the total Democratic and Republican Party votes in both Senate races, with all sides acknowledging that the Democrats are still facing steep odds of sweeping. By January, the double-header will decide not only party control of the Senate but also the future path to a potential economic recovery for both the U.S. and to a significant extent, the rest of the world.
While the anticipated record-breaking spending in Georgia's twin runoffs has gotten a lot of media coverage, the ramifications of so much hinging on contests that will likely be decided by a relative handful of voters is an under-explored aspect of the story. Leading researchers on politics, campaign finance and the media told AlterNet that the Georgia campaigns exemplify a system that is anti-democratic to its core.
Consulting and Pollster Industry Descends Upon Georgia
The numbers so far have been dizzying, and the campaign has only just gotten underway. According to AdImpact, by Thanksgiving week, $220 million had already been spent between all four campaigns (Ossoff has spent $41.6 million; Loeffler, $40.8; Warnock, $34.2 and Perdue, $30.1) while another $214 million in future buys had been reserved.
With this rate of spending, the campaigns are collectively on pace to reach a half a billion dollars in spending by Election Day or perhaps even more, according to Professor Thomas Ferguson, author of The Golden Rule.
"One private equity investor put a couple of million into the Maine senate race which clearly came during a late influx of money," Ferguson said. As a result, when it comes to Georgia, "you very well may not see what the real total spending will amount to until the end December."
You may be wondering what all of this money is even being spent on.
As Nichols explained to AlterNet, "party campaign committees, leadership PACs [political action committees], special interest PACs, political television advertising and hired gun political consultants and pollsters," form the bedrock of what he dubbed, "the media and election industrial complex, which Bob McChesney and I have written about because the truth of the matter is that there really is a huge industry that is solely dedicated to this."
The Atlanta metro area's television market, where three-fourths of Georgia's voters reside, is already approaching near total ad saturation well over a month before Election Day. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who has embraced Trump even more than her fellow Republican incumbent, has already spent 23 million of her own personal funds on television advertising and has already reserved an additional 40 million.
Georgian voters have already registered their fatigue with the advertising onslaught. Echoing the thoughts of many Georgia users in the Twittersphere, one posted, "Here in Georgia, I can't watch anything without being POUNDED with political ads. I get it, but I'm sooooooo tired."
Rich Campaigns, Poor Democracy?
The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that campaign spending is the equivalent of protected political speech. As a result, each election year records for campaign spending set in previous cycles routinely fall, according to Gerald Sussman, the author of Global Electioneering.
"Overall, more than $14 billion will have been spent on all Federal-level campaigns this year, doubling what was spent in 2016. The amount of money is abhorrent and disgusting," Sussman told AlterNet, while adding that "the more professionalization of campaigns intervenes into the electoral process, the less democratic it will be."
To a whole generation of young people, it has become a fact of life that elections are synonymous with big spending. But to Sussman, this is not consistent with a healthy democracy. "In the 1950s, things were done on a retail basis as politicians would have district and ward captains and everything was done locally." In modern times, however, "political consulting firms have centralized the whole process. Now it's just left up to the experts and professionals." Sussman added that spending doesn't dominate the process in most democracies, which have relatively short campaign seasons. He pointed to the United Kingdom's six-week long election campaigns as a better model.
Ferguson also pointed to the British electoral process. "I would like to shorten them, of course. A British-styled system and election length would be much better," especially paired with a robust public campaign finance system.
Nichols told AlterNet that many of the tactics that are part and parcel of the election industry are at direct odds with basic tenants of democracy. "Polling isn't done to figure out what the voters want and instead, it's done to help figure out how to 'sell' candidates most effectively."
Pollsters and political consultants are mining for, "the fodder for negative ads," Nichols added. And indeed, Georgia has already been rife with some of the most brutal negative advertising this election cycle has seen.
"You have pollsters going in and asking if you'd vote against someone if you knew this and that," Nichols explained. "It's to figure out how best to manipulate people as opposed to deciphering what they truly want so as to get people to potentially vote against their own interests which is very, very anti-democratic."
Ferguson, whose research has shown that candidates who raise more money stand a much greater chance of winning election, added that "when you get that much money pouring into the election, it means that you have all these investors who decide which election is 'worth it' and that tends to pull even liberal democrats to the right. It is a somewhat subtle effect but a very real one and clearly an anti-democratic consequence of the system."
Much More at Stake than Control of the Senate
Because of the worst economic recession to have gripped the world since the Great Depression, and major partisan differences over pandemic policy, what happens in Georgia will have major ripple effects depending on which party ends up controlling the Senate. This has become a focal point of the campaigns.
Four months after the CARES Act's enhanced unemployment benefits expired, partisan lines have been drawn in the sand over another relief package to such an extent that the New York Times reported that a Democratic-led Senate, even with Trump sticking around in the White House, had a larger chance of passing a robust relief bill than would a Biden administration if Republicans maintain control of the Senate.
Raising the stakes even higher, according to mainstream economists, both the country's own economic future as well as the world's is at stake with Georgia's outcome. That's because of the strong linkage between the U.S. economy and that of the global economy as a whole.
Over 120 economists, including a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, recently signed off on a letter calling for a second stimulus package to be, "big, immediate and direct."
In the meantime, there has been talk in Washington about a possible interim agreement being brokered for a limited stimulus relief package to be passed during Trump's few remaining days in office and the lame-duck session of Congress. But economists don't agree that is even close to what is needed.
"Whatever lame-duck agreement may happen, we already know that it won't be nearly enough, so it's still essential for the Democrats to sweep in Georgia for the kind of stimulus package that economists have a large consensus as being needed, can also be potentially passed," Heidi Schierholz, the director of the Economic Policy Institute, told AlterNet.
Of the many uncertainties which continue to characterize this unexpectedly extended election season and the flailing global pandemic economy, one thing is clear: Georgia really is "crazytown" this cycle.
This post has been updated after publication.
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