HOW MONEY DIVIDES US: Consultant-Speak is the Voice of Citizens United
Ever wonder why we are so evenly divided between red and blue? Some say it’s because there is effectively no difference between Republican policies and Democratic policies. Others say it’s about money. An argument could be made that it’s both. This essay finds that divisions are inherent in the structure of our democracy, and observes that new corporate money has shifted the center of gravity in politics to the right.
The not-so-surprising conclusion is government policy reflects the needs of its new core constituency — billionaire donors.
Most people would agree that the current events we discuss have little to do with what actually matters in our lives. Most people would also agree that there’s too much money in politics. Some though might be surprised to learn that there is a connection between the two.
This is a brief discussion of how the media relates to the increasing predominance of money in politics. We’ll begin with a discussion of today’s institutional media, and end with how the combination of money in politics and corporate media has created a feedback loop which not only leaves us poorly represented, but could ultimately pose a systemic threat to democracy in America.
The Existing Media Environment
Think of the media environment as a combination of two elements: the content providers, and the content they create. The industry’s corporate structure, and the sources that provide content, determine the terms of the national discussion.
Providers are the major media outlets, increasingly supplemented with smaller, but growing outlets available on social media. Content is the “message” described by Marshall McLuhan. It is the sum of the topics chosen, viewpoints expressed, audience numbers, and resulting public opinion.
There can be little doubt that the topics chosen as “news” in America’s media environment do not deal honestly with the actual power dynamics in today’s world, or pocketbook issues that affect most Americans. A biased editorial vetting process will be assumed in this analysis. In other words, the fact that the news we see does not accurately reflect the issues that are actually important is so obvious, proving it is unnecessary.
What’s not so clear is how the media chooses the topics it covers, and the ones it doesn’t. The former is fairly obvious, the latter is more opaque.
Sins of Commission
Its fairly easy to determine how media chooses the topics it covers. The structures and sources described in 1988 by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent, still exist in today’s media environment. The editorial content of the stories that make up what we call news are chosen through a series of filters that are inherent in institutionalized, for-profit media. Media doesn’t create news, it packages it.
Want to understand the media? Look at its structure and its sources. Structurally, media is corporate, often with affiliates that are in unrelated businesses, some of which do business with the government. With mergers, the many outlets we see are owned by fewer multi-national corporations each year. All are driven by the profit motive.
In terms of content, media relies heavily on no-cost government sources — politicians and bureaucrats. Investigative reporting costs too much for profit-driven media enterprises. Politicians provide content to get air-time, which amounts to free campaign exposure. Bureaucrats provide content, often in order to make successful transitions to corporate careers. Today investigative reporting is undertaken mostly for prestige.
Corporate sources seek media attention too, assisted by public relations firms and media consultants, who are effectively lobbyists who can get them airtime. They back their effort with media buys, perhaps through subsidiaries.
Both government and corporate sources are biased, both depend on the media, and the media depends on them. Together, media, government, and corporations are institutionally vested in the existing media environment. They form an ecology of power preservation, a status quo — an establishment. And although social media is beginning to chip away at the edges, today, media still only broadcasts what the government and large corporations want us to know.
Journalism is dead. What we see in print today is the result of relationships, not journalism. One illustrative example can be drawn from the 1987 hearings confirming Robert Gates as the Director of Central Intelligence. Melvin Goodman, a CIA whistleblower, described how he gave Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times facts, backed by evidence, that directly contradicted Gates’ confirmation testimony. She acknowledged Goodman’s evidence, but didn’t print it. Her justification was that Goodman “would probably never be a source for a future story, but Gates could be a key source for many important stories.” (Goodman, 2017)
So when you see an “exclusive” story, you’re not seeing the result of diligent reporting, you’re seeing the result of successful networking.
The establishment exists to control. To have control is to have power. By controlling content, the establishment controls the questions we ask. If you control the question, you control the discussion. That’s why we’re discussing Russian interference in the 2016 election, rather than the Democratic party’s failure to connect with voters.
In her book What Happened, Hillary Clinton blamed her loss, among other things, on the Russian president: “What Putin wanted to do was…influence our election, and he’s not exactly fond of strong women, so you add that together and that’s pretty much what it means.”
From the many factors that affected the results in 2016, the establishment chose that one cause, and framed Russia as the primary post-election narrative, despite an almost total absence of evidence of Russia’s effect, if any, on the election results. If we were to ask how and why the Democrats really lost, the Democratic establishment would have to step aside, and powerful people don’t like doing that. In this case, the ties that bind government, corporations, and media, held.
Sins of Omission
How media chooses the topics it doesn’t cover is a little more difficult to determine, although a short review will reveal a pattern. The U.S. media doesn’t cover the human toll of U.S. military action, it doesn’t cover civilian drone casualties, it doesn’t cover where the military is deployed, it doesn’t cover the extent of special forces operations, it doesn’t cover the daily activities of the CIA and NSA, it doesn’t cover the power of corporations to influence U.S. foreign policy, and it doesn’t cover the $6.5 trillion unaccounted for in the Pentagon budget.
Ever notice how embedded journalism resulted in coverage that was almost entirely sympathetic to the U.S. military? The gory parts that turned the public against Vietnam were missing. This was the conscious result of government policy.
Another sin of omission is political corporate-speak. Think about Bill Clinton promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Liberals thought it was a promise for more generous benefits after years of assault under the Reagan/Bush regimes. It turned out to be deeper cuts to welfare benefits.
Corporate-speak is known in politics as “messaging.” It is a manner of communication that is sufficiently vague, as to not convey actual meaning, but is sufficiently focus-group tested, to resonate with target voters. In other words, it’s advertising.
Thus, while Bernie Sanders unequivocally advocated a single payer system, Hillary Clinton promised to “bring the promise of affordable health care to more people and make a ‘public option’ possible.” We all know that health care is an immensely complicated topic. Clinton presented it in a vague, supposedly achievable manner, which in fact can be accomplished by doing nothing (promising isn’t delivering, and the public option is already possible). Sanders was more definite. Clinton’s messaging, money, and media groupthink won the primary.
Topics not covered by the media are much more important to the donor class than topics it covers. The corporations that benefit, and the politicians who support them, are very happy to have them go unnoticed.
It is no coincidence that the media, which is owned by the corporate donor class, which also relies on politicians as sources for free content, chooses not to cover topics that would alienate either. Media is spectacle. What actually matters isn’t discussed. Call them paid-for omissions, or more simply — cover.
We talk about what General Electric and Bechtel want us to talk about.
Add New Money in Politics
Money has always been present in electoral politics, recently though, there’s been a lot more of it.
There were no campaigns to speak of in the early days of the republic — the founding fathers waited their turn, chose among themselves, and served their term when chosen.
Andrew Jackson was the first presidential candidate to actually run for office, and by 1910, election funding had become so dirty, a progressive Congress passed the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), enacting the first campaign spending limits. Political Action Committees began collecting funds for campaigns in the 1940s.
In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which required increased reporting and introduced new spending limits. In 1974, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Buckley vs. Valeo, giving First Amendment protection to certain election spending. Later, parties, PACs, 527’s, and other non-profits used “soft money” to avoid FECA’s reporting requirements and spending limits.
In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or the McCain-Feingold Act), prohibiting party soft money.
Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations may make unlimited expenditures on messages encouraging votes for or against specific candidates, so long as they’re not coordinated with candidates or parties. The Citizens United decision brought “dark money” into the mix, where there is no disclosure of the donor or the amount.
According to economist Joseph Vogl, recent analyses show that around 1,300 corporations dominate 80 percent of the global economy. They are forming a tightly-knit community of powerful billionaires. According to Vogl: “[T]hey ‘cumulatively hold the majority share of each other’…. A close-knit and largely self-regulating bloc of corporations forms an economic ‘super-entity’ containing a concentration of network control and financial-economic policy-making power.” (Vogl, 2017)
And they’re using our money. Thomas Picketty demonstrated how, for the last four decades, billionaires have taken the great majority of new economic growth, leaving us today with historic levels of economic inequality. In 2010, there were 1,000 billionaires in the world. By 2017, there were over 2,000.
Politics is now a biennial auction, with billionaires lining up their favored candidates as if they were thoroughbreds at the race track. The first few primaries will prove if your horse can go the distance, and not coincidentally, the media covers these “races” with sports metaphors. Horseracing (“pulling ahead”), boxing (“on the ropes”), football (“blocking and tackling”), baseball (“knocked it out of the park”) — they all get plenty of airplay. Politics has become a testosterone-driven game of kings. One can fairly guess that donor egos are on the line in this game.
The common perception of billionaires is that they got there by their intellect, but these people — mostly men, aren’t necessarily very intelligent. They have a talent for acquiring money, based more on testosterone and aggression than on enlightened thought.
Money never left politics, but in recent years, there’s been a lot more of it.
Two recent events demonstrate the new money in politics. First was the $760 million spent in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. It was twice the $332 million that John Kerry spent in 2004, which itself was twice the $120 million Al Gore spent in 2000. Second was the explosion in so-called “independent expenditures” after Citizens United. Independent expenditures went from about $200 million in 2008, to over $1 billion in 2012 — a fivefold increase.
On a dollar basis, individuals cannot compete with corporate donors. If making donations is the way to get a chair at the table, the seats are all taken by corporations.
The Effect on Democracy
It would be naïve to say that all this new money in elections has had no effect on governance.
One interesting effect might be decreased influence of the political parties. Given the sheer amount of money being spent by “independent” sources, party funding has become a quaint reminder of yesteryear. This is exemplified by how the Hillary Victory Fund essentially took over the DNC in 2015, making the DNC and state parties effective subsidiaries of the Clinton campaign.
Over the years, the political parties have gone from being kingmakers and breakers, to being something more akin to public relations firms, the province of fundraising, marketing, and polling consultants. They are brands, like Coke and Pepsi.
It would be difficult to provide positive proof that increased influence of money in politics has caused division and equality between political sects. Some pertinent facts, though, do stand out. First, especially since Citizens United, big money has been flowing into politics. Second, our politics is more partisan and divided than ever before. Are they related? If so, to what effect? First let’s look at the divide, then we’ll conclude with an analysis of how we got there.
At first blush, it would seem that there is numerical equality between the parties. That impression is incorrect. As of 2017, 46% of Americans leaned Democratic, while only 39% leaned Republican. (Gallup counts “leaning” because 42% of Americans are registered independent or no party affiliation).
The 7%, gap is significant, but more important is where that 7% resides. Because a significant number of Democrats live in coastal urban centers of big states, our system, by design, tends to weaken their impact. In presidential elections, the electoral college favors small states, which tend to lean Republican. In congressional elections, the apportionment of senators, and gerrymandering tend to favor Republicans as well.
What we have is equipoise — effective influential equality between the parties.
The 2000 presidential race was decided by 537 people in Florida, only 0.009% of the 5,963,110 total votes cast. In 2016, even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million, Trump beat her 304 to 227 electoral votes. We have a system where a pedophile running for the U.S. Senate in Alabama was competitive, because he was a Republican.
The power shared by the parties is roughly equal, and their politics are increasingly marked by entrenched, tribal partisanship. Are these conditions exacerbated by increased money in politics?
The Effect of Money on Partisanship
Providing direct proof that more money in politics leads to more entrenched partisanship is probably not possible. Instead of direct positive proof of numerical (or influential) equality, we shall set up a series of inferences, a chained syllogism, and allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
The syllogism goes something like this:
1) The system is coherent and interdependent. Politicians rely on corporations for donations, and on media for airtime. Corporations rely on politicians for policy, and on media for cover. Media relies on politicians for content, and on corporations for revenue.
2) Change the system by increasing the amount of corporate money in politics, say, five-fold;
3) To compete for all this new money, politicians change their message to appeal to the donor class, new media emerges to showcase the new message, resulting in policy changes favorable to corporations.
It is important to note that the system is based on competition. Media companies are for-profit. Politicians need donations. Corporations view money in politics as investments that will pay in future policy accommodations. Money is the common denominator, sought by all.
A watershed moment in American partisanship was 1996, when Rupert Murdoch first aired FoxNews. Murdoch recognized a structural weakness in the existing media environment — it was non-partisan. By creating a partisan news channel, Murdoch was able to strip half the audience away from other news outlets. And it worked. In 2002, FoxNews beat CNN’s ratings, and has been #1 in cable news in the fifteen years since.
FoxNews’ impact on the media environment is hard to overstate. Sean Hannity, its most enduring voice, refers to himself as an entertainer. FoxNews’ content is marked by prevarication and propaganda. Their appeal is almost exclusively to the working-class white male. It’s message is driven by testosterone, as if it was written by a frat boy.
Instead of rejecting the FoxNews model, the system incorporated it. This is likely because it resonated strongly with the donor class, who themselves were probably frat boys. Hamstrung by reliance on facts, other media content providers are at a relative, and permanent disadvantage.
The saying “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” is attributed to H.L. Mencken. (Actually, it is a paraphrase from an article he wrote criticizing tabloid journalism).
FoxNews has profited generously from lies, and its audience’s willingness to believe them. Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” and George H.W. Bush’s “no new taxes” are lies that were several orders of magnitude smaller than George W. Bush’s justification for the Iraq War, or, well, just about everything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
Using a potent mix of ethnic tribalism and confirmation bias, FoxNews’s audience greedily digests these lies, normalizing them.
Karl Rove put it best: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The problem for the Democrats is that they have no equivalent media dynamic. They are resigned to calling out lies, to people who don’t care. Donors don’t care about lies, they only care if people are believing them. This creates a feedback loop where lies become reality, especially if “reality” is what’s politically possible.
Thus, according to academics Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, “Most Democratic candidates, like most Republicans, have had to take certain pro-wealthy stands on policy to get the money needed to run for office.” (Page and Gilens, 2017)
As a result, the Democratic party establishment has shifted to the right, justifying doing so by the competition for donors. In the 1990s, they institutionally adopted Reagan/Thatcher-era neoliberalism, calling it the “third way.” This caused a shift in the center of gravity in American politics which, not coincidentally, conforms with the interests of the donor class.
The system is based on competition, and with the introduction of new money, competition has driven the nation to the right. The parties are still at equipoise, people still buy either Coke or Pepsi, it’s just that from a policy perspective, Hillary Clinton is more conservative than Richard Nixon.
The commonsense conclusion? Corporate America’s new freedom to influence politics has paid off. Assisted by the media, both parties delivered, and everyone in the system profited. The rest of us are the losers, and we barely noticed it happening.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Competition and profit are two pillars of our capitalist society. As we have seen, the fact that we are so evenly divided is inherent in the nature of competition. With its newfound influence, by supporting both political parties, corporate America has assured itself a good outcome.
In 2000, George W. Bush’s biggest donors were Philip Morris, the National Rifle Association, Microsoft, and Enron. Al Gore’s biggest donors were Ernst & Young, Citigroup, Viacom, and Goldman Sachs. In 2016, Clinton’s biggest donors were Paloma Partners, Pritzker Group, Renaissance Technologies, and Saban Capital Group. Trump’s biggest donors were Renaissance Technologies, McMahon Ventures, Walt Disney Co., and GH Palmer Assoc. (Renaissance Technologies, which donated millions to both Trump and Clinton, runs Medallion, a highly profitable hedge fund).
All of these corporations invested heavily in their respective elections, and both election results were nearly equal. This is no coincidence. From the corporations’ perspective, the policy outcomes under Bush and Trump are roughly the same as they would have been under Gore and Clinton.
So while a solid majority of Democrats support single-payer healthcare, we’re discussing Russia. Or, while a simple majority of Republicans support legalizing marijuana, the Trump administration is calling for stricter enforcement of drug laws. In other words, political parties do not reflect the views of their base. While some might call that leadership, its probably more accurately described otherwise.
The Economist magazine just downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” for continuing diminished trust in government.
If we lived in a functioning democracy, we would have legal marijuana, background checks on gun buyers, and a path to citizenship for immigrants covered by the Dream Act — all things that a solid majority of Americans want.
But we don’t have them. Instead, we have ever-increasing funding for the Pentagon, and robust NSA spying capabilities. Government works when it is in service of John Perkins called the “corporatocracy,” but when it comes to providing the things people actually want, it becomes deeply dysfunctional.
The good news is most of us can still vote. The bad news is we’re not being given the information we need to vote, at least in our best interest. Corporate media serves the interests of the donor class, the billionaires, who fund the system.
It would be tempting to think there is a conspiracy between (or collusion among) the billionaire donor class to divide up the electorate, but that has two flaws: One, there is no evidence of a conspiracy. Two, it is hard to imagine that the donor class could agree on anything, let alone coordinate themselves in any coherent manner.
What’s left is the conclusion that the divisions are systemic. They are inherent in the nature of competition. By competing for new donor money, the parties remain at equipoise. The bad news for the American public is, the policy discussion continues to shift to the right.
This represents a systemic threat to American democracy. If the national discussion is increasingly based on lies, and billionaires continue to consolidate power, the American experiment will not survive. We are already an oligarchy. It is not hyperbole to point out that the current trajectory will lead to some form of totalitarianism.
The one solution, the only way out of this compounding loop, is a popular revolution. Voters must demand change, and vote out the politicians who refuse. This is the only solution, because that is how the system was meant to work. If the system fails, a peaceful revolution becomes less likely.
Either way, a revolution is coming.