American politics: corrosion by the dollar

Godfrey Hodgson
6 November 2006

On Tuesday 7 November 2006, America votes in the mid-term elections. The prospect for is a result that may be as significant as two earlier historic votes: the "Watergate election" of 1974 when the Republicans paid the price for Richard Nixon's restless, paranoid over-striving in 1972, and the criminal and otherwise disgraceful acts carried out by his team; and the "Contract with America" triumph of Newt Gingrich's radical Republicans in 1994.

Most handicappers predict a more or less massive swing back in favour of the Democrats. Until a couple of weeks ago, the question was whether the Republican administration's troubles, and those of the Republican-controlled Congress, would allow the Democrats to clamber over modest Republican majorities and win control of at least the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate too.

Since then the Republicans have been plunged into a sea of troubles. Their claim to represent the moral majority and in particular their stance against gay marriage has been turned to derision because of homosexual scandals involving the Florida Republican congressman Mark Foley and the Colorado preacher Ted Haggard.

Above all, Iraq has come back to haunt them, with massive majorities in most parts of the country expressing anger at the Bush administration's mismanagement of the war and the horrible bloodshed it has caused. Not even the death sentence imposed after the guilty verdict on Saddam Hussein on 5 November, it seems, can overcome the voters' anger at the cynicism and incompetence of President Bush and his administration.

Also by Godfrey Hodgson in openDemocracy on American politics:

"Can America go modest?"
(October 2001)

"The Senate's filibuster deal: only a truce in the culture wars"
(May 2005)

"American media in the firing-line" (June 2005)

"Gimme five! US Republicans' amoral minority" (June 2005)

"After Katrina, a government adrift" (September 2005)

"Oil and American politics" (October 2005)

"The death of American politics" (October 2005)

"The Democrats' dilemma"
(November 2005)

"The mandate of heaven and the tipping-point" (December 2005)

"The US Democrats' opportunity: can they take it?" (June 2006)

"'Yo, Blair'" (July 2006)

"It ain't necessarily so: if Bush wins again"
(July 2006)

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

As a result, in the last few days before the election, a growing number of experts has been predicting, not narrow Democratic gains, but (pick your metaphor) a tidal wave, earthquake or historic realignment. The sagacious, and cautious David S Broder in the Washington Post, for example, has (with his colleague Dan Balz) spoken of "setting the stage for a dramatic recasting of the power structure in Washington" in favour of the Democrats (see "Democrats, on the Offensive, Could Gain Both Houses", Washington Post, 5 November 2006). Pollsters, pundits and even conservative Republican politicians as close to that power structure as Dick Armey, former congressman from Texas, have made it plain that they think there will be a massive swing to the party out of power.

The evening of 7 November will test their predictions. In the meantime - win, lose or draw - there are things to be said about the tone and style of this year's elections. They have, by common consent, set a new low for vituperation, smearing and abuse.

The most outrageous campaign advertisement was the one, paid for the Republican national committee, in which a blonde, bare-shouldered actress posed as a Playboy model and pretended to have something going with Representative Harold Ford, a Democrat hoping to be the first African-American elected to the Senate from the deep south since the reconstruction period after the civil war in the 1860s. But that was only the most egregiously tasteless smear. Across the country, Republicans, much more than Democrats, have used similar tactics to portray Democratic opponents as hypocrites, perverts and dangerous, unpatriotic radicals.

Democracy's cost

This is bad enough, particularly for a political party that claims, with apparent seriousness, that it believes its duty and destiny is to teach the whole world to copy the American version of democracy. But what may be more dangerous, not to mention a more pernicious model for the world to follow, is the role of money, and specifically the role played by ever more expensive television advertising in the American way of campaigning.

Over the past month, as reporters from the major national news organisations have fanned out across the United States, they have filed carefully even-handed stories about congressional "races". Almost without exception, these have contained, as the primary piece of information on which readers can calculate the prospects of the two candidates, an estimate of how much money they have to spend. Sometimes they have recorded the candidates' positions on the various issues; almost invariably they have estimated, or been informed by the candidates' staff, of the state of their financial health.

This emphasis on money is not surprising, still less perverse. For it is all too true that a candidate's chances of being elected to Congress depend critically on the amount of money he or she has to spend, and in particular on how much they can spend on television advertising.

Reports on previous campaigns show that in the early stages of an election, money has to be spent on organising staff, renting offices, laying in telephone lines and hiring pollsters, copywriters, space-buyers and the like. But the closer you get to polling way, the higher the proportion of a candidate's money goes on buying TV ads. In recent presidential elections, in the final two months between Labour Day at the beginning of September and the election at the beginning of November, over 80% of the money is spent in this way.

Presidential election campaigns cost hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes over a billion. State-wide races, especially in states such as California, Texas, Florida or New York which have multiple media markets, can require close to $100 million. A congressional race can cost more than $5 million; in a state such as New Jersey, where a candidate has to place ads in the two massively expensive media markets of Greater New York and Greater Philadelphia, a race for Congress can cost almost as much as a Senate campaign.

The dollar effect

But critics too often focus on the numbers and miss the political point. It is not that the sums involved are absolutely too large for the American economy. It has been calculated that the entire expenditure in the 2000 presidential campaign came to no more than would have bought a pizza for every man, woman and child in the country. The 2004 campaign might have added a tomato-and-mozzarella sauce topping, but it would hardly have broken the national bank.

There are two reasons why the American way of elections is so objectionable. The first and less serious problem is that - in general and on average - the need for money discriminates against the Democrats and in favour of the Republicans, as the party of corporate business. In the 7 November election campaign, that has not been by any means universally the case. Democrats, helped by widespread fury at the hubris and incompetence of the Bush administration, have raised almost as much money as Republicans, and in some key races have raised more.

What is more pernicious is the effect on politicians of the need to raise so much money. Many of them spend almost literally all of their time at fundraising events, appearing at "rubber chicken" dinners at$1,000 dollars a plate, telephoning their way through a Rolodex of potential donors, or all but abasing themselves before anyone with serious money. Law firms organise endless events at which their clients are beseeched to pay, and the loot is then distributed among favoured, disproportionately Republican politicians.

President Bush himself has spent much of the campaign appearing in the districts of favoured Republican candidates, not to support them with the power and polish of his oratory, but to meet behind closed doors from which reporters are usually excluded, so as to raise money.

The campaign-finance question

America has a long and proud history of generous public benefaction. But not everyone who gives money to political campaigns does so without an axe to grind, in the princely manner of Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett. Most political donors want access, and if they give enough, they get it. The way the system works at the moment discriminates, actively and with the full knowledge of all involved, in favour of the affluent.

It is not as if efforts have not been made to reform campaign finance. A whole sequence of legislation, going back as far as the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (that is, even before Watergate and its later electoral excesses) have sought to restrict donations. A series of devices have been invented to sidestep the reforms, or to bore loopholes through them.

Reform is restricted, however, not only by the ingenuity of "K Street", the Washington lobbying community which profits from the fundraising rackets, but also by federal law. The key ruling here was by the Supreme Court in the 1974 case of Buckley vs Valeo. The court found (in January 1976) that giving money to politicians was a form of free speech, and as such protected by the first amendment to the constitution, which lays down that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Incidentally, but perhaps not coincidentally, the plaintiff was James L Buckley, the brother of the great architect of the conservative ascendancy in American politics, William F Buckley, candidate of the small Conservative Party of New York as well as of the Republicans for the Senate.

Unless Buckley vs Valeo is challenged and overruled, there is little chance of serious reform of the campaign-finance system. Yet the single most important reform that could free American politics, in every corner of the country and at every level, of the tyranny of money would be a strict and effective limitation of spending on political advertising on television. To suggest anything of the kind to most practicing politicians in the United States, Republican or Democrat, in the present climate, is rather like suggesting to nations that they foreswear the use of aerial bombing. It invites incredulity and derision. But sooner or later, it will have to be done if American democracy is to recapture its historic authenticity.

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