Friends often encourage me to write about a variety of subjects. Occasionally, one of my more sane and realistic friends will make a reasonable request, and writing about money in politics is one of the good suggestions. (I qualify that because not all of my friends are sane or realistic. All right, I have some doozies, but who doesn’t?)
Our system of campaign finance is irretrievably broken, mostly because it has unaccountable institutional benefactors. The “dark-money” super PACs are primarily special interest lobbies, high net-worth individuals (almost always fighting any kind of taxation), and party fundraising apparatuses that are separate from the candidates they support. The biggest beneficiaries are local radio and television stations.
Here’s an interesting note: broadcast stations, which are licensed and regulated by the FCC, are obliged to offer their “lowest available rates” to candidates. PACs and super PACs get no such benefit, and since the largest sums are spent by political action committees, broadcasters look forward to the windfall profits that are as predictable as sunrise. It happens every two years like clockwork, rendering our local TV and radio stations as unwatchable and unlistenable as the waning hours of a three day exorcism.
Some redistribution of this reliable-as-rain income is happening as the social networks like Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok get an increasing slice of the unsavory pie.
The last attempt at regulating campaign finances came with McCain-Feingold, which teamed conservative Arizona maverick, John McCain, with liberal Wisconsinite Russ Feingold. It capped spending, and forced donors to identify themselves. As it turned out, it was the triumph of hope over experience, kind of like a second marriage.
McCain-Feingold had more holes than Swiss-cheese, so didn’t work very well to begin with, and the little remaining hope was dashed upon the shores of the Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision, that held, among other things, that corporations are people and have similar rights, and that the government, based on their reading of the First Amendment, had no business interceding in matters of electoral finance.
It’s worth spending a minute on the concept of “dark money” in the public sphere. When I was the chair of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog, Common Cause Georgia, we had a real donnybrook over the concept. Our conservative board members thought it just fine to spend gobs of money influencing elections anonymously, denying the voting public the knowledge of who is behind the big money driving advertising, and what their motivations are.
The liberal contingent of the board argued that anyone who has the ways and means to influence our elections has an obligation to show themselves. It all broke down over the conservative’s claims that their comrades would be subject to harassment, and the liberal’s counter claim that the price of public influence is standing up, being counted, and letting the public know exactly why they want to exert influence.
The issue is transparency.
Sophisticated PACs know that between cord cutting and streaming, over the air television (now referred to as “linear TV”) viewing is dwindling. They’ve sought, and in social media, have found, new venues for these massive amounts of money. That is why not even your smart phone is a safe haven anymore.
My brother, who lives in the newly important battleground state of Georgia, is typical of cord cutters who cannot escape the avalanche of cash sustaining these campaigns. He reports that he can’t get away from unsolicited texts from Governor Brian Kemp, Stacey Abrams, and Herschel Walker. He also notes that the top campaigns have already spent $300M there, and that the TV stations have added a new 3 p.m. newscast to accommodate the advertiser demand. In TV lingo, it’s merely a “spot-carrier,” necessary because even in the face of social media, they can’t get out of the way of the money being thrown at them.
Granted, Georgia is the current focus of battleground state watchers due to the enormous interest in the Herschel Walker-Raphael Warnock contest, whose outcome may well determine the majority of the Senate. But it is also representative of the nation at large. Just look at California, the most reliably Democratic-leaning populace this side of The People’s Republic of Boulder, where untold millions are being spent even as I write.
Like all advertisers, political advertisers are trying anything they can think of to reach consumers where they are, and on whatever device they’re using. So it is unsolicited emails and text messages, it is Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and interestingly, TikTok, which has become such a massive platform that advertisers feel they still get bang for the buck, even though half of the potential audience is in the politically apathetic under thirty crowd.
This time around, they’ll spend more than in 2020, and we’ll suffer through it.
©2022 Jon Sinton
Vol. 38, No. 44 - Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022
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