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Ari Berman: The Politics of the Super Rich

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

America has a serious air pollution problem. Kathleen Hall Jamieson is hell-bent on fixing it.

"Air pollution," in this case, doesn't mean CO2, methane, or anything else in the poisonous cocktail of gases helping warm our planet. Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor and long-time media critic, is talking about the error-riddled attack ads flooding the TV airwaves this campaign season, specifically the ones funded by super PACs, the juiced-up political outfits that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don't coordinate with candidates. Jamieson wants to de-smog the airwaves, and her strategy amounts to a one-word formula: shame.

Sites like PolitiFact.com and Jamieson's own FactCheck.org already vet super-PAC ads for accuracy and fairness, finding them to be filled to the brim with misleading and sometimes flat wrong claims. Now, Jamieson wants to wave those fact-checks in the face of broadcasters around the country, especially in political battleground states, and use them to embarrass station managers into keeping false ads off the air. Legally, TV stations can't reject a federal candidate's ads, however misleading they may be. But ads from third-party groups, including super PACs? Fair game.

Jamieson admits that her super-PAC shame game is a long shot -- and then some. After all, the struggling broadcast industry stands to make the biggest of big bucks -- literally billions of dollars -- this election cycle. (The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which helped usher in super PACs, has proven to be a TARP bailout program for the broadcast industry, as she regularly says.) But Jamieson points to the work of advertising legend Tony Schwartz, who successfully used commercials to combat smoking and who even saved the John Jay School of Justice in New York, as evidence that shame can indeed spur change. "Our theory is you start with the lowest level -- 'Will you stop running this ad?' to the station managers -- then you escalate," Jamieson says. "There's some chance this process will make the stations insist on accuracy."

Why does Jamieson's plan matter? Because any new law regulating the flow of money in politics is dead on arrival in Congress, which means that the job of reining in deep-pocketed super PACs falls to people like Jamieson and her pie-in-the-sky plan. In the meantime, super PACs will dominate the airwaves and the owners of TV networks and stations will rake in the money. As Ari Berman -- who offered an anatomy of the American political landscape in his book Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics (just out in paperback with a new afterword) -- makes clear, it's the wealthiest of the wealthy, the ones who bankroll the super PACs, who are essentially going to be doing most of the talking this election season. Andy Kroll

The .0000063% Election
How the Politics of the Super Rich Became American Politics

By Ari Berman

At a time when it's become a cliche to say that Occupy Wall Street has changed the nation's political conversation -- drawing long overdue attention to the struggles of the 99% -- electoral politics and the 2012 presidential election have become almost exclusively defined by the 1%. Or, to be more precise, the .0000063%. Those are the 196 individual donors who have provided nearly 80% of the money raised by super PACs in 2011 by giving $100,000 or more each.

These political action committees, spawned by the Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United decision in January 2010, can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, or unions for the purpose of supporting or opposing a political candidate. In theory, super PACs are legally prohibited from coordinating directly with a candidate, though in practice they're just a murkier extension of political campaigns, performing all the functions of a traditional campaign without any of the corresponding accountability.

If 2008 was the year of the small donor, when many political pundits (myself included) predicted that the fusion of grassroots organizing and cyber-activism would transform how campaigns were run, then 2012 is "the year of the big donor," when a candidate is only as good as the amount of money in his super PAC. "In this campaign, every candidate needs his own billionaires," wrote Jane Mayer of The New Yorker.

"This really is the selling of America," claims former presidential candidate and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. "We've been sold out by five justices thanks to the Citizens United decision." In truth, our democracy was sold to the highest bidder long ago, but in the 2012 election the explosion of super PACs has shifted the public's focus to the staggering inequality in our political system, just as the Occupy movement shined a light on the gross inequity of the economy. The two, of course, go hand in hand.

"We're going to beat money power with people power," Newt Gingrich said after losing to Mitt Romney in Florida as January ended.  The walking embodiment of the lobbying-industrial complex, Gingrich made that statement even though his candidacy is being propped up by a super PAC funded by two $5 million donations from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.  It might have been more amusing if the GOP presidential primary weren't a case study of a contest long on money and short on participation.

The Wesleyan Media Project recently reported a 1600% increase in interest-group-sponsored TV ads in this cycle as compared to the 2008 primaries. Florida has proven the battle royal of the super PACs thus far.  There, the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, outspent the pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, five to one.  In the last week of the campaign alone, Romney and his allies ran 13,000 TV ads in Florida, compared to only 200 for Gingrich. Ninety-two percent of the ads were negative in nature, with two-thirds attacking Gingrich, who, ironically enough, had been a fervent advocate of the Citizens United decision.

With the exception of Ron Paul's underdog candidacy and Rick Santorum's upset victory in Iowa -- where he spent almost no money but visited all of the state's 99 counties -- the Republican candidates and their allied super PACs have all but abandoned retail campaigning and grassroots politicking.  They have chosen instead to spend their war chests on TV.

The results can already be seen in the first primaries and caucuses: an onslaught of money and a demobilized electorate. It's undoubtedly no coincidence that, when compared with 2008, turnout was down 25% in Florida, and that, this time around, fewer Republicans have shown up in every state that's voted so far, except for South Carolina. According to political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, negative TV ads contribute to "a political implosion of apathy and withdrawal." New York Times columnist Tim Egan has labeled the post-Citizens United era "your democracy on meth."

The .01 Percent Primary

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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