With the election still a few days away, it is perhaps a bit early to begin prognosticating about the lessons we will draw from 2012. Nevertheless, we can make some preliminary observations, none of them particularly hopeful for the future of American democracy.
This presidential election is the first since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling. That 5-4 decision overturned legal limits on corporate, union, and individual spending for or against political candidates. Spending was understood to be form of free speech, and the limits imposed were deemed unconstitutional. The ruling opened up the possibility that this election would see previously unimaginable sums of money harnessed for ideological purposes. It did not disappoint.
2012 witnessed the rise of the “Super PAC.” Super PACs are legally prohibited from donating directly to candidates, and they must disclose their donors to the Federal Elections Commission. However, they can spend unlimited amounts of money to independently advocate for or against a candidate or cause. While political power and wealth have always been linked in this country, the present election tests just how far we can push this linkage before something breaks.
At the time of writing, this development has amounted to roughly $610 million in expenditures by Super PACs in the 2012 cycle. Two Super PACs, the pro-Romney “Restore America’s Future” and the Karl Rove-directed “Crossroads” have together spent more than $237 million dollars. That’s over 35% of the total amount spent by all such organizations. If one looks at the top ten highest spending Super PACs, conservative groups are outspending progressives by a factor of 2 to 1 (or more accurately, $301 million to $146 million).
To paraphrase the great political scientist E.E. Schattschneider, the “heavenly Super PAC chorus sings with a strong conservative accent.”
Critically questioning the effectiveness of big money in this election cycle, a recent article by Susan J. Douglas asks whether Super PACs will matter. In examining the power of Super PACs in shifting popular consciousness, she points to the impact of viral video and swiftly disseminated internet “memes” in shifting the tide of the election at decisive moments. After all, Mitt Romney’s “47%” comments marked an important turning point in the election, one which will no doubt be held up as a crucial blunder if Romney is defeated. This required only a cell phone camera and Mother Jones to host the video.
Furthermore, inventive internet memes have capitalized on the candidates’ missteps, be it an attack on Big Bird, a zinger about “Horses and Bayonets,” or President Obama’s much maligned comment, “You didn’t build that.” None of these memorable moments required a heftily-funded Super PAC to disseminate the message in a way that resonated with the American people. As Douglas notes, “No big media buys here: Just put it out there and watch Facebook work its magic.”
Yet when all is said and done, neither of these trends looks particularly promising for the future of American democracy.
The presence of Super PACs in American politics amplifies the voice of wealthy interests and individuals to such an extent that democracy no longer passes the “straight face” test. These organizations overwhelm us with negative, malicious, manipulative attacks. They cultivate the seeds of resentment and apathy already planted in so many Americans. By their very existence, they nurture hostility towards the American political process and the duty of public service which we simply must overcome if we are to confront the difficult challenges we face as a nation
Furthermore, while the rapid and diffuse networked culture of memes and viral videos is surely more inclusive in its operation, one could question whether it enriches our understanding of complex political issues. The viral meme operates as a more rapidly disseminated version of the “sound byte.” Too often, it frames complex political issues in ways that inflame partisanship and bickering, pushing us further and further away from a constructive dialogue characterized by reciprocity and respect.
The 2012 election has given us much to think about beyond issues and candidates. We need to think seriously about the mechanisms we have allowed to drive our understanding (or misunderstanding) of political questions. A contest in which the stakes are so high will always introduce the temptation to reduce our opponents to a caricature, or to utilize any means necessary to defeat them.
However, if our democracy is to emerge from the desiccated shell it has become, we must demand more from our political process and from ourselves as citizens.