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Down the tube: Television, turnout and the US election-industrial complex

By Andrew Cockburn, ‘Letter from Washington’, in the April 2016 issue of the monthly Harper’s Magazine

“I never met a politician who started out to be a fund-raiser,” remarked Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and recipient of constant pleas for cash from lawmakers. For years, he has watched them dial for dollars and endure nightly gatherings convened for the extraction of donations — “grim affairs,” in his phrase — because they have been convinced such efforts are vital for survival at the polls. “Most of them run for office because they want to achieve something,” he told me. “But once they get there, they spend their time raising money. I don’t know a single one who enjoys it.” Ironically, he explained over a beer on K Street, most of the money they raise is wasted, especially on expensive TV campaigns that do nothing to move voters. The principal effect of these labors, he insisted, is to “feed the consultant class.”

My companion was referring to the strategists, pollsters, TV-ad makers, media buyers, direct-mail specialists, broadcasters, and other subcategories of what we should properly call the election-industrial complex. Amid an economy that has bumped along since the 2008 crash, this industry has enjoyed a staggering growth curve, barely matched in percentage terms even by its military counterpart, as candidates and campaigns rattle their begging bowls ever more furiously with each cycle.

Such manic spending is driven by a core belief of modern American politics: the votes can be bought if the check is big enough. “You now have the potential of two hundred people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time,” Barack Obama told a select group of donors gathered in Medina, Washington, in February 2012. “I mean, there are five or six people in this room tonight [who] could simply make a decision, ‘This will be the next president,’ and probably at least get a nomination.” Obama’s audience, which included several billionaires, had each paid $17,900 into his reelection coffers to attend. According to Ken Vogel, indefatigable chronicler of political money flows, the president’s jeremiad contained the obligatory reference to the brothers Koch and their famously bottomless war chest — an ever-reliable bogeyman, of course, for Democratic fund-raisers.

Thanks in part to such invocations, the 2012 election generated a shade under $7 billion for the industry, an all-time record. A single Republican consulting firm, Crossroads Media, collected no less than $248 million during the campaign, even though it was on the losing side. But the $7 billion figure will almost certainly be dwarfed by the 2016 total, as indicated by just one astounding statistic: a week before this year’s New Hampshire primary, the contending campaigns had already spent $100 million there on TV ads. In the previous election, by contrast, the campaigns had invested a mere fiftieth of that amount on TV at the same point…

Although reformers lament the Supreme Court’s contemporary loosening of restraints on campaign finance, the rise of the modern election industry can in fact be dated to post-Watergate efforts to rein in campaign spending. New rules imposed accounting requirements, which effectively mandated the services of professionals, while limits on party spending fostered an explosion in PACs — each of which, naturally, required a consultant. Decade after decade, the industry kept growing. Meanwhile, a spate of recent legal decisions — most notably the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling but also a lower court’s SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission — inaugurated the age of “independent expenditures”: industry-speak for super PACs, to which corporations and individuals can donate without restraint. This has ensured a potentially limitless income stream, all shared among a relatively small number of individuals and firms…

Down the tube: Television, turnout and the U.S. election-industrial complex

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