October 30, 2006
Cashing in on Democracy
Centuries from now when the history of America's experiment with democracy is written, historians may conclude things went pretty well, until the late 20th and early days of the 21st-centuries.
“Twentieth century Americans thought so highly of their 'one-person, one-vote' representative democracy that, at the dawn of the 21st century, they tried exporting it to the Middle East. But, even as they touted democracy's benefits to others, their own democratic institutions had become less bastions of democracy than facades, behind which a handful of media companies harvested billions of dollars during each election cycle. In short, American put a price on their democracy, and it was very high.”
Okay, so I can't really channel some future historian after all. I made up the “story” above. But the one below is completely -- and disturbingly -- true:
$2.6 Billion: Campaign spending up in U.S.
The Associated Press: Money talks in U.S. politics, and there is more of it talking this year than ever before in congressional elections.....The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics predicts that, by the end of the year, candidates, parties and outside groups will have raised $2.6 billion for the Nov. 7 elections, 18 percent more than in 2002....Federal Election Commission figures show that as of Sept. 30 congressional candidates alone had raised $1.18 billion, up almost 15 percent from $1.03 billion in 2004. (More)
And that's just in a mid-term congressional election year! Estimates are that the 2008 presidential election year could see as much as $6 billion flow into the coffers of Big Media moguls.
Did I say “moguls?” How quaint. I sound like an old 60's lefty. Are there really any “moguls" still around? Well, you decide. Most of those billions of election year dollars are and will continue flowing into the hands of just ten media conglomerates:
1. AOL/Time Warner
2. General Electric
5. Liberty Media Corp.
6. AT&T Corp.
7. News Corp.
9. Vinendi Unversal
10. Sony Corp.
Every year The Nation Magazine takes stock of what these media companies have gobbled up. For a real eye opener check out this year's charts. Just click on the small icons on the left side to see each company's stable of once independent media outlets.
( http://www.thenation.com/special/bigten.html )
There was a time in US history that the price of democracy was measured in lives lost to win and protect it. Today it's measured in cold hard cash – billions upon billions of dollars each election cycle. America's election cycles, once a celebration of democratic renewal, have become an every two-year flood of easy money for big media companies and their shareholders.
Whoa! Talk about creating a moral hazard! Ever wonder why campaign ads are getting meaner, less relevant and far less truthful? Because, when one candidate slings mud the other candidate needs to sling back. After all, you don't want to be the only candidate in a race wearing mud. Nope. You need to pony up some ad money for a counter ad, find (or make up) some dirt on the other guy and sling back - and so on. It's Big Medias version of a perpetutual motion money machine. Once they prime the thing it produces money by the bucket load.
Of course to sling mud effectively candidates need access to the best possible slinging machines. And, thanks to rampant media consolidation, those ten big media compains now own any slinging machine worth the slinging.
With that in mind, ask yourself, who now has the most at stake in US elections? If we we're talking good governance, well clearly it would be voters. But we're not. We're talking cold hard cash, and lots of it. Which means that as of today Big Media has the most at stake. The meaner the political mood, the more ad revenue rolls in their front doors.
Big Media's interest in democracy is decidedly different than yours and mine. What do we want?
* Good government,
* Fair taxes,
* Affordable health care,
* Good schools for our kids,
* A clean environment.
Large media companies want different stuff;
* Low to non-existent corporate taxes,
* Low to non-existent capital gains taxes,
* Low to non-existent regulation and oversight
* Low to non-existent enforcement of anti-trust laws
But most of all Big Media likes nasty, and the nastier the better. They like to sell nasty ads, then have hired pundits talk about how nasty they are. For Big Media, "can't we all just get along," is a formula for financial ruine. Acrimony, on the other hand, is money in the bank. And with every new election cycle it becomes more and more profitable for Big Media to make sure it stays that way.
Big Media's cynism is also entirely immune to embarssment. When you hear pundits on network or cable channels wringing their manicured hands over how “uncivil” and “mean” politics have become, remind yourself that those pundits are paid by the media outlet on which they cry those alligator tears. Pundits are paid to pick at social and poliitcal scabs to assure those wounds remain fresh. (God forbid, they ever heal!)
Even as those sage-sounding pundit's words waft through a Comcast cable to your TV set, that very same network's accountants are downstairs furiously trying to count the hundreds of millions of dollars they are harvesting --- precisely because politics is mean and uncivil these days. (Eat your heart out, George Orwell. Even your pessimism could not have imagined such a sorry state of affairs.)
All of which explains why your are being bombarded with political ads in the mainstream media that appear to have been written by a clutch of high school bullies. And don't let them try to tell you that all you are witnessing is a healthy exercise in free speech or the vitality of American politics. Give me a break! What you are really witnessing is a harvesting operation by Big Media. It's an election cycle harvest, and a bounty no less. It's the easiest money Big Media can make. Unlike product ads, which they have go out and sell and pay sales commissions on, political ads flow in every two years as like water from the receiving end of a fire hose. It's as close to free money as any corporation has ever pocketed.
So the next time someone asks you how much your democratic rights are worth, you'll know. Nothing. You don't own it any longer.
That's not to say America's democracy is worthless. Not by a long shot. This election cycle it's worth around $2.6 billion. Next time, it'll be worth more. A lot more.
(Oh, and if you are wondering what the cure for this situation is – click here – or not. It's still up to you – at least for a bit longer.)
Quote of the Day
"Over the last quarter century, the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled."
Jon Chait's New Republic