The national party conventions are over; the true believers are energized. Unleash Death by 30-Second Slanders to win enough votes from the 30% of “independent” registered voters who gag on politics to get to 270 in the Electoral College.
It’s a time-honored American tradition to poke fun at our elected officials:
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
— Mark Twain
This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.
— Will Rogers
Yesterday, House Republicans held their 33rd vote to repeal Obama’s healthcare law. It was mostly a symbolic vote that accomplished nothing — or as Congress calls that, a vote.
Questioning authority is healthy. Ignoring it is dangerous. Dismissing it as corrupt or irrelevant, with no clear understanding of its role or significance, can be hazardous to your life, liberty, and property. Like me, you’ve probably been involved in conversations where our elected officials are vilified indiscriminately, without mercy or quarter, and at length. I’ve taken to waiting until the prosecutors seem to run short on air or energy, and interject:
“YEAH! Who hired all those assholes, anyway?”
Oops. We did—or at least those of us who voted.
I know, I know—you’ve heard this before. “Here comes the guilt trip.” Nope, not from me. There’s a lot to be disgusted about in politics and governance today. I know; I’ve been involved in both professionally, for four decades, and I feel the same way.
Our founders spent a lot of time and energy designing a system of self-governance that’s relatively simple, elegant, and balanced. They were educated men who understood two things:
- We are imperfect beings—heads of angels, feet of clay—who bear watching; and
- They existed in a unique historical time and set of circumstances, in which they could try a different experiment.
Based on my own study and experience, here’s the simple truth: The machine they left us is highly roadworthy, as long as there is an informed and engaged citizenry willing to make the payments, perform regular maintenance, and upgrade as necessary.
It’s ours to lose and, for the first time in my life, I fear it’s a real possibility.
How Bad Is It?
“Super PACs may be bad for Americans but they’re very good for CBS.”
— Les Moonves, President, CBS
Sixteen years ago, veteran journalist James Fallows wrote a book entitled Breaking the News: How American Media Undermine American Democracy, which made him an instant pariah across the media establishment. His thesis: After the dawn of the 24-hour cable news cycle, journalism became less a calling than a cut-throat, corporate enterprise. Hard-nosed reporting and independent analysis of publicly-significant issues were being crowded out by an arms race to fill space with “good TV,” with two goals in mind: ratings and revenue. It became easier, cheaper, and much more profitable to turn elections into “horse races,” complete with endless polls and wall-to-wall punditry–mostly from folks with scarce experience in covering government or politics. As a natural consequence, under their constant glare those we elect have tailored their behavior to them, rather than to us. Vaclav Havel, poet, modern leader of the Velvet Revolution and President of the Czech Republic, made this observation in a 1995 Harvard commencement speech:
I never fail to be astonished at how much I am at the mercy of television directors and editors, at how my public image depends far more on them than it does on myself. I know politicians who have learned to see themselves only as the television camera does. Television has thus expropriated their personalities, and made them into something like television shadows of their former selves. I sometimes wonder whether they even sleep in a way that will look good on television.
Fallows catalogued, fairly and responsibly, how our media institutions were failing in their responsibility to keep us informed about our public institutions. He pleaded with them to regain their balance:
The test of one’s skill as a journalist, and the measure of one’s ultimate impact, is neither to satisfy appetites people already have, nor to rehash “substance” in an unappetizing way, but rather to bridge those realms and make people care about what counts. If as a writer you deal only with fluff, you are not a journalist but an entertainer—and sheer diversion is not what the First Amendment was intended to protect. But, if you neglect your duty to entice and entertain, no one will read, watch, or listen to what you have to say.
Now, more than ever, Breaking the News is a must-read because it provides the perspective necessary to understand how much more serious this problem has become since. If you have the time, two other contemporaries also provide similar analyses from different angles—political journalist/pundit E. J. Dionne, Jr. in Why Americans Hate Politics (1991), and political consultant Vic Kamber in Poison Politics: Are Negative Campaigns Destroying Democracy? (1997). (You could also skip to Dionne’s new analysis, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. I haven’t read Thomas Mann’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, but I plan to get to it. Both were released in May.)
How much more serious? Take the innate effectiveness of TV advertising, add limitless profits, and stir. (See Les Moonves, above.) Take it from someone who’s been involved in managing political campaigns: negative advertising is used because it works—I guess for the same reason that it can convince you, overtly or subliminally, that drinking beer will get you laid or that Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs are part of your balanced breakfast—except in reverse. “Don’t buy that guy; if you do, your life is over!” Thanks to the penetration and omnipresence of cable and satellite television and the Internet, a candidate needn’t run in a major media market; all she needs is the budget for testing and media buys. In most campaigns, it’s not even optional. Read the next questions and answers carefully:
Q. Why do politicians spend all their time raising money for themselves?
A. To get elected and re-elected.
Q. Where does all that money go?
A. Almost all of it goes, directly and indirectly, to buy advertising—TV; Internet; direct
mail, and telephone—priced at whatever the market will bear.
Add to that this fact: in April 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court reached far beyond the corners of the case before them to eviscerate generations of precedent and used the First Amendment to confer on Section 527 “Super PACs” and 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money—in the latter case, with no contemporary donor disclosure, at all—to advocate for the election or defeat of any candidate for federal office. (California has its own, similar “Independent Expenditure Committees,” but you can find out who’s giving them money and what they’re spending it on—within 24 hours, within two weeks of Election Day—without leaving the house. Small comfort, but something.)
Finally, consider this: All present means of public expression in our society are controlled by 29 corporations: TV and Radio, 10; Cable and Telecommunications, 9; Print, 6; and Internet, 4. In exchange for free licenses from the Federal Communications Commission, they’re supposed to comply with public service requirements established by Congress and regulated by the F.C.C. There’s no real limit on what they can charge for advertising, though, so it’s not uncommon for a print publication to solemnly editorialize about the corrosive effect of money in politics while a broadcast company in the same conglomerate is profiting from political advertising. Speaking of the founders, I’d love to get Tommy’s or Jimmy’s take on conferring the rights of speech, petition, and assembly on giant cartels operating in secret—you know, the ones they wrote to shield basement pamphleteers against the mighty and powerful.
“Shut It Down”
In all my 40 years, here’s how I’ve understood it’s supposed to work. After engaging and fighting the good fight on the electoral battlefield, all sides accept the will of the voters, beat their rhetorical swords into ploughshares, and join in good faith to do the people’s business.
Not anymore. Beginning in earnest with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994 and revived by the Tea Party two years ago, refusing to govern is now an option, in service to the paramount principle of crushing the other side. A year ago, Mike Lofgren walked away from a 29-year career staffing budget and national security issues for U.S. Senate Republicans and caused a sensation with his Truthout post, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a Republican Operative Who Left the Cult.” (I picked it up from James Fallows on his blog and wrote about him, my own experiences on the Hill, and another Republican orphan last year.) While Lofgren found the deliberate confrontation over increasing the debt ceiling last August the straw that broke the camel’s back, he makes it plain that it was his party’s increasingly intemperate rightward tilt toward rich contributors, increased defense spending, and pandering to fundamentalists—and Democrats’ timidity in standing against it—that drove him out:
I left because I was appalled at the headlong rush of Republicans, like Gadarene swine, to embrace policies that are deeply damaging to this country’s future; and contemptuous of the feckless, craven incompetence of Democrats in their half-hearted attempts to stop them. And, in truth, I left as an act of rational self-interest. Having gutted private-sector pensions and health benefits as a result of their embrace of outsourcing, union busting and “shareholder value,” the GOP now thinks it is only fair that public-sector workers give up their pensions and benefits, too. Hence the intensification of the GOP’s decades-long campaign of scorn against government workers. Under the circumstances, it is simply safer to be a current retiree rather than a prospective one.
Lofgren has now written a book: The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. (I’m planning on reading it for review next week.)
Fallows also posted a similar reflection from a House staff person who retired after 26 years when her long-time, moderate House Democrat boss lost re-election in November 2010 election. Her analysis is just as sobering:
Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don’t think people realize how fragile democracy really is. The 2012 campaign is currently looking to be the final nail in the coffin unless people start to understand what is going on.
One thing that especially resonated with me about Mike’s piece is the importance of “low information” voters. The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters’ minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.
The media likes to call this group “independents,” which implies that they think so long and deeply about issues that they refuse to be constrained by the philosophy of either party. There may be a couple of people out there who fit that definition, but those are not the persuadable voters campaigns are trying to capture. Every campaign is trying to develop its candidate into an easy-to-remember slogan that makes him or her more appealing than the other guy. Actually, because negative campaigning is so effective, they are more often trying to portray the opponent as more objectionable (“I guess I’ll vote for the crook because at least he won’t slash my Medicare”).
What to Do? Oh, What to Do?
Like I said: our end of the bargain is to be informed and engaged—and, as my sainted mother used to say, “You’ll never learn any younger.”
Next Monday I’ll post a list of resources of media and governance resources I’ve found helpful to at least stay even that are:
- Unbeholden, to the maximum extent possible;
- Reliable; and
- Reasonably easy to use.
It won’t hurt a bit. I promise.