The most squalid and anti-democratic element of the U.S. electoral system is its insatiable appetite for money, vast rivers of money. It transforms our leaders into supplicants, required to contort themselves and their policies to please rich patrons.
Current spending forecasts for all candidates in the 2012 races run as high as $8 billion. That’s nearly double the $4.2 billion of two years ago, which itself was double 2008’s spending. The public has only scant understanding of how insane these outlays are by historical standards. The 1996 general election — presidential, congressional, the works — cost $651 million. The major presidential candidates spent $343 million on their races in 2000; eight years later, in September 2008, the Obama campaign alone raised $150 million in a single month.
The harm that this dependency has done to our politics is a rich subject for investigative journalism, and the litany of corruption related to fund-raising, lobbyists, earmarks and the like offers perennial reasons for the rancid cynicism with which even people who aren’t especially well informed regard political life. The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution’s guarantees of expressive freedom outweigh the damage done by letting office-seekers bargain away whatever they must to coax unlimited funds from the wealthy so they can drown out their opponents at election time.
Still, most of the rest of us concede the electoral system’s gluttony for money is corrupting. So who benefits? Here, the undisputed beneficiary is the media, especially local, ad-supported broadcasters. In 2008, for instance, of the record $760 million raised by Obama, $427 million went to media of all kinds — from direct mail and billboards to newspaper ads. Of that, $244 million was spent on local radio and TV, Newsmax.com reports.
Just so my argument is clear: The biggest single reason for the worst thing about our electoral system is that to reach the voters, candidates need to pay the media a fortune. Hence, it’s no surprise that the news media rarely denounce runaway campaign spending. And if there ever were a movement, heaven forbid, to actually require broadcasters — in exchange for their licenses to use the public airwaves — to donate air time to electoral candidates, as other advanced democracies do, you’d hardly expect support from the National Association of Broadcasters.
But there is some minimal way these media barons can serve the system that feeds them so lavishly: They can maintain careful logs of campaign ad buys and make them readily available so that the public can learn who’s spending what and for whom. If the media are to be conduits for influence, the public can at Continue reading