I filled out my California ballot today, choosing candidates and wading through the propositions trying to figure out who’s behind what and why. I don’t blame people who feel like bystanders in democracy these days – that some ethereal dispute is underway that most of us aren’t meant to understand. It's like in the movie “Clash of the Titans,” in which the gods are fighting each other while mere mortals are mostly just trying to avoid becoming collateral damage, dodging the Kraken and other nightmares hurled down upon them from Mount Olympus.
The various official and Super PAC campaigns for the presidential candidates are expected to break the $2 billion barrier by Election Day, a dubious record made possible by several men in black on the United States Supreme Court, whose decision in Citizens United authorized corporations to take control of American politics under the guise of freedom of speech.
In California, meanwhile, well-heeled politicians and special interest partisans in the proposition battles are spending hundreds of millions more flooding the airwaves and mailboxes.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the electoral marketplace is prosperous – like the stock market. Meanwhile, back on the planet, those Americans not employed by the Money Industry (unemployment rate: 4.6%), or its dependent relative the Political Industry, are desperately trying to hang on to a job, or more likely a part-time job. And yet, as my colleague Marty Berg and Ralph Nader have pointed out, neither Obama nor Romney have had anything to say about raising the minimum wage. It’s $7.25 an hour for federal workers; a whopping $8 an hour in California.
We could probably increase the minimum wage significantly just by taxing political advertising in the United States. Doubt that would get past the Supreme Court, though.
It’s not only the amount of money, but how it’s being unleashed: in an extraordinary assault of distortions and lies, raining down on the heads of voters from incomprehensible, sometimes secret sources. Take the California elections, for example. Proponents of Proposition 32 on the ballot insist that by limiting the political activities of unions, it will increase government “transparency.” But the Proposition 32 campaign is being funded by out of state money of unknown origin. The lobbyists hired by Proposition 33, which is 99.4% funded by the long-time CEO of Mercury Insurance Company, sued several of us who are opposed to the measure in court last August. They lost; but last week they claimed that we sued them and we lost. Huh? Then there’s Proposition 37, which would accomplish the unarguable goal of requiring food that is genetically engineered to disclose it on the packaging. You couldn’t possibly understand that from the TV ad against Prop 37, which features doctors and farmers riffing on how Prop 37 will inspire frivolous lawsuits, raise your grocery bills by zillions of dollars and favor dogs over people. It's the Kraken, beamed into our living rooms to terrorize us.
Figuring out the truth about this proposition is hard enough; figuring out who's paying for the TV commercials is impossible. No, really: try it for yourself. Watch this YouTube video and see if you can read the 75 words that appear for exactly three seconds in block micro-print at around 27 seconds in. If you pause it and squint, you might catch the names DuPont, Monsanto and ConAgra. Kind of alters your view of Prop. 37, doesn't it?
The nation’s electoral discourse is so polluted by money-driven deceit these days that it has its own sociological description: “post-truth” politics.
Honesty in campaigns used to be policed by journalists, particularly newspaper reporters, who had the expertise and experience to weigh in on complex issues and call out the liars. But their numbers have dwindled, leaving the combatants (or in the case of the special interests, their highly paid surrogates) to slug it out. The Golden Rule often determines who prevails: he who has the gold, rules.
Or maybe it makes no difference at all. According to a story in this week’s New Yorker, the Obama campaign has concluded, after an exhaustive study of the 2008 race, that the most effective way to reach a voter is “not TV ads or glossy mail but contact from an enthusiastic human being.” Is it possible Americans have finally figured out that when “the TV tells you” how to vote, as one voter said to me back in a 1998, night after night without surcease, you can probably safely assume the sponsor of that ad is not on your side, and vote the other way? Maybe if someone you trust calls or shows up at your doorstep – but that costs a lot of money, too.
The average American cannot compete against the monied and powerful in the political or legislative arena. That's the betrayal of America's Constitution rotting at the core of the Citizens United decision. By equating money to speech, and decreeing that corporations have the same free speech rights as human beings, the high court rendered most Americans mute. We are now spectators, hoping we will somehow see the truth. Or at least not get hurt.
Illustration (c) Charles Lynn Bragg