Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America
by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney
Nation Books, 2013
This book could not be more relevant today. The mining of personal data at the behest of the highest levels of the current administration is perhaps most shocking to erstwhile Obama supporters (including this reviewer) and perhaps, along with the appointment of hawkish advisors, offers dour prospects for the rest of the presidential term.
Tikkun readers will recognize John Nichols immediately from his appearances on MSNBC and the pages of the Nation; Robert McChesney, the most distinguished media scholar/critic around today, is also not be likely to be altogether unfamiliar. Indeed, in its depths, this book follows some of the themes of McChesney’s Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (2012) but brings them directly into the political crisis at hand.
That the corporate-driven “medium” overcomes almost any conceivable “message” is one of the clearest lessons of the election of 2012. It seems as if the clock has been turned so far backward that the reform advances made in the Progressive Era, a century ago, now stand in danger of being wiped out. Limitless corporate contributions, centralized control of press and electronic coverage (during the 1910s, there were hundreds of socialist and progressive daily and weekly newspapers, until many were shut down for opposing the First World War), oceans of lies accompanied by campaigns of voter suppression—we’ve seen it all before, but mostly in the history books.
Nichols and McChesney go back to the early decades of the Republic, when barely a fraction of the white, male electorate bothered to vote (leaving out women and non-whites, of course). Advances have been made, then taken away, made again and taken away again, over the course of nearly two centuries. Forgotten giants like Robert LaFollette, Burton K. Wheeler and, in his day, even proud Imperialist Theodore Roosevelt railed against the “money power” in politics. A later wave of campaign reformers, notably Senator Frank Church, helped push through important reforms in voting rights and practices during the 1960s-70s. Lyndon Johnson took the credit, along with other Democrats, but the biggest credit naturally belongs to the Civil Rights Movement and its antiwar counterpart, which forced through the vote for eighteen-year-olds (“old enough to die”). Still others, Ralph Nader and thousands of forgotten local activists moved on ahead, confident that the expansion of democratic rights could not be halted. On the side of the angels, they were, but in this belief, plainly mistaken.
Not that ordinary Americans are all that fooled. Back in 1910, more than 80 percent polled said that corporations have too much power, and more than 90 percent agreed that citizens have too little. Curiously enough, as they show, the old Right felt an ambivalence at the highest levels that lasted right up to the Roberts Court. Country Club Republicans, strange as it sounds, actually worried about Wall Street; new style Republicans have had no use for familiar constitutional limitations on the money power. Karl Rove stormed through the election seasons up to a somewhat disappointing 2012, overwhelming most Democrats unable to stand up to the financial odds. Union rights, going back at least to the creation of the National Labor Relations Board in the new Deal years, were eviscerated and with them defenses of pensions and assorted benefits, not to mention pay.
“Today, as a result of the Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider its decision in Citizens United,” Nichols and McChesney quote Bernie Sanders saying, in a paraphrase of Lincoln, “We are rapidly moving forward toward a nation of the super-rich, by the super-rich and for the super-rich.” The media is on the fast track with the ascent of the dollarocracy, most famously with Fox News but hardly them alone. The task of the “Consultant Class,” operatives Democratic and Republican alike, is to do to the Internet what was done politically with television in the 1960s: set the parameters and keep out everything else.
“If they prevail,” the authors warn, “America will have to fight … all the pathologies of current campaigning coming through our iPhones,” not to mention the Tweeting that reached a new peak with the first Obama-Romney debate. No other voices were heard with ten-thousandth of the same volume. Thus the Internet, far from rendering giant corporations impotent in controlling the economy or even the information coming to us, “has arguably become the greatest generator of monopoly power in … history.”
Monopolistic or near-monopolistic power in economics means dollarocracy in politics, of course, unless we find a way to push back. The results aren’t very promising so far. Campaign press coverage, in any significant way, steadily shrinks, with nonprofit investigative journalism a promise unfulfilled and (given limited resources) unfulfillable. The millions of tweets do not educate.
The software success of the 2012 Obama campaign was not mainly in tweeting its message, but rather in mining the vast data available, including the information of all visitors to “Obama.com” with regard to, say, religious or erotic websites, musical tastes and so forth, all presumably far beyond the usual questions of voting behavior. Working with the data and some two million volunteers, the campaign conducted many millions of phone calls along with in-person visits to homes. The digitization of all this information further vacuumed up offline issues such as dating preferences, shopping histories, financial problems and so much more. With vast information at hand, polling could be done with the most precise of targets and messages. This is the look, not of democracy in action, but of the next stages of commercial targeting.
Republican counterparts, shifting money from television to on-line tools, described the process as “buying the audience.” To say the least, consumers have little or no idea that the process even goes on, let alone directs their activities. Nor are they likely aware of the evolution of self-referencing groups (Fox watchers and Limbaugh listeners the most obvious example) who feel less than no common interest with others across the political spectrum. The Republicans’ Southern Strategy, staged in the bad old days of misleading television campaign ads on “God, Guns, and Gays,” turns out to be the precursors of winning formulas of negative campaigning. Where is this all going? As Nichols and McChesney note, even elites have a stake in the status quo—but the Republicans of a generation ago may have scarcely more than the union voters among Democrats. Something is badly out of control here. Other than being amazed and alarmed, I am not sure what conclusions to draw from the authors’ last chapter. Surely, we need to protect Constitutional rights and ensure voting rights, as they say. Is that enough? I wonder.
Money Out of Politics: An Afterword from Tikkun Editor Rabbi Michael Lerner
One of the major accomplishments of the ESRA (the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) is that it presents a coherent plan to get money out of politics. If we build a movement to get it passed, we will make a major break in the power of the 1 percent to dominate the politics of the 99 percent.
Many people on the Left have narrowly focused on overturning Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, which would also require a constitutional amendment, but if we passed a narrower amendment such as that, we wouldn’t win much because the rich would still be able to donate disproportionately, candidates for office would still have to play to the desires of the wealthy, and corporations could still threaten to move out of the United States. if there was not a “favorable economic climate” for them. That’s why the ESRA:
a. Requires only public funding of all national and state elections and bans all private donations to candidates or political parties in the year before the elections, and requires free and equal time for all major candidates from all major media, and
b. Requires the larger corporations to get a new corporate charter every five years which they can only get if they can prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility (criteria specified in the amendment) to a jury of ordinary citizens (thereby closing the “open door” between corporations and so-called regulatory agencies). If you are convinced by Buhle or by Nichols and McChesney, or if you already know how central to our future it is to get money out of politics and to require corporate environmental and social responsibility, how about joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives and helping us popularize this vision?
You can read the ESRA here. Then help us form a local chapter that can mobilize people to seek endorsements of the ESRA by your congressional representatives, your state legislators, your city council, your professional organizations, the local branch of your political party, your social change organizations, your union, your religious or civic organizations, and your neighbors. And create a monthly study group to read articles from Tikkun magazine (not just online-only articles like this one, but also articles from the print edition, which are available to those who subscribe or who join the NSP). You cannot say that you were never provided with something you could do to change things—because that is what the campaign for the ESRA would really do.
“It won’t win,” you think? Well neither did the ERA, but the struggle for it changed consciousness dramatically in America, and so will the struggle for the ESRA make those changes in consciousness. And as the advance of gay marriage shows, what seems totally unrealistic a decade ago can suddenly become today’s reality. So join us please at spiritualprogressives.org.