My Dwindling Faith in Political Campaigns

19 Oct

My active interest in the superficial aspect, the candidates, in the 2008 US general election is done. Aside from swapping arguments and tales of disillusionment with my mother and sister (strongly anti-McCain), election news is no longer a high-value target in my RSS feed trawling. What remains, as it was almost from the beginning, is an interest in the nuts and bolts of electioneering.

For instance, the hedge fund industry has contributed $13,836,241 to date since 2006. Banks are in for $29,960,731. Overall, Senator Barack Obama has spent $377 million and Senator John McCain $204 million. Other candidates in this election season have spent less, but still significant amounts of money. House Democrats have a $47 million advantage over their GOP rivals. Perhaps for some these amounts are insignificant, but I wonder about the value of the return, whether considered in monetary terms or a less crasser scale, for these investments in governance.

I’ve never understood how contributing money is legally considered “speech” in the United States. SCOTUS has enshrined contributions as a First Amendment matter most notably in Buckley v. Valeo. Aside from the etymological quibble, defining an individual by his/her ability to accumulate disposable amounts of cash offered at his/her own discretion undermines the the philosophical notion of political equality upon which American constitutional republicanism is founded. I also just don’t understand how groups have First Amendment that privilege them over individuals.

I turned my attention to a forgotten aspect of American democracy: political campaign management. This “curriculum” dates me, since my university didn’t offer such a discipline when I studied political science. But, who among us RSS crawlers has not heard now of James Carville, Karl Rove, Mike Murphy, or Mark Penn? These professionals have morphed into celebrities, sometimes notoriously – consider Dick Morris. Perusing Dennis W. Johnson’s No Place for Amateurs, I learned just how complicated campaigning (the book was published in 2001) has become. Yet, political consultants are ubiquitous, from the local to national level. Most are not large operations, and often these temporary professionals exist with very little overhead. But, they bring a consistency to campaigns that is the cause for concern. Johnson, himself a consultant turned academic, concludes that the professionalization of campaigns is “inevitable”, and, although he offers voluntary alternatives, these same alternative forms of expression, like ballot initiatives, are also increasingly populated with consultants.

Consultants make elections costly and increase voter apathy, by creating generic products that standardize campaigns and their visible manifestations, the candidates and policy platforms. American campaign laws provide the mechanism by which consultants and their staffs are paid. “Joe the Plumber” or Proposition 13 might challenge a candidate or a branch of government with populist ideas, but the same standardization inherited from consultants, and even direct guidance, comes from a campaigning industry seemingly unregulated and given license by a mistaken notion of free speech based on a Darwinian notion of survival by the richest, and usually an organization, not a person. In turn, consultants undermine actual expression by standardizing commercials and other campaign expression – there is now a “History” of the three AM phone call campaign commercial – into brands, like cereal and toothpaste, which laypeople, even “Joe the Plumber” trade back and forth in place of actual observation and argument. Joe Biden made a joke out of the “kitchen table”, but William Ayers is the message, not “When did your family last discuss an election?” What my mother, father (who will probably just not vote), and sister believe is ultimately more important than William Ayers, because Ayers will not escort them to the polling booth. The irony is, that consultants operate on what contributors give them, repackage that expression into an actual policy pitch, but often cannot convince more than the original donor population to vote with them. What are “independents” and “undecideds” but those people who don’t need consultants to tell them what to think? What about the plurality that doesn’t vote? Their voice is the loudest: we don’t hear anything we like at all. The American political process has become an echo chamber, and one that continues to hemorrhage cash for no good cause.

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