When President Barack Obama was reelected, some pundits argued that, despite unbridled campaign spending, here was proof that big money couldn’t buy elections. The exact opposite was the case. The 2012 election was a quantum leap: it was America’s first $10 billion election campaign. And it solidified the power of a new class in American politics: the fabulously wealthy individuals and corporations who are radically redefining our politics in a way that, failing a dramatic intervention, signals the end of our democracy. It is the world of Dollarocracy.
U.S. elections have never been perfect, but America is now hurtling toward a point where the electoral process itself ceases to function as a means for citizens to effectively control leaders and to guide government policies. In Dollarocracy, two leading media experts—journalist John Nichols and academic Robert McChesney—examine the forces that have sapped elections of their meaning and stolen America’s democratic potential: the pay-to-play billionaires and the politicians who do their bidding, the corporations that have been freed to buy elections and the activist judges who advance their agenda, and the media conglomerates that blow off journalism while raking in billions airing intellectually and morally reprehensible political advertising.
The unprecedented tidal wave of unaccountable money flooding the electoral system makes a mockery of political equality in the voting booth. The determination of media companies to cash in on that mockery, especially by selling ad time at a premium to the campaigns—when they should instead be exposing and opposing it—completes a vicious circle. What has emerged, argue Nichols and McChesney, is a “money-and-media election complex.” This complex is built on a set of commercial and institutional relationships connecting wealthy donors, corporations, lobbyists, politicians, coin-operated “think tanks,” beltway pundits, and now super-PACS. These relationships are not just eviscerating democratic elections, they are benefitting by that evisceration.
With groundbreaking new research and reporting, Dollarocracy concludes that the money-and-media election complex does not just endanger electoral politics; it poses a challenge to the DNA of American democracy itself.
Excerpt from the Introduction
In the days and weeks following the 2012 election, the winning side predictably announced that the problem of money in politics was overrated because, after all, this side won. Imagining that all was well because the darkest possible scenarios did not immediately play out, the Christian Science Monitor declared, “Despite concerns that huge amounts of money spent by political action committee would skew the results, many candidates backed by large PAC-financed advertising campaigns did not win their races. Money was less influential than expected. Voters thought for themselves.” So there you have it. Or maybe not.
While Republicans and their allied super-PACs did spend billions to defeat President Barack Obama and the Democrats, it is not as if the Democrats failed to return fire with fire. As the New York Times concluded, “The president and his allies appear to have matched or exceeded Mr. Romney and his allies in the number of advertisements that aired.” As the dust cleared after the election, it became obvious that the Democrats were very much part of the system, with their own dependence upon big money in countless areas. “The president’s re-election does not presage a repudiation of the deregulated campaign financing unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision,” political correspondent Nicholas Confessore of the Times wrote. “Instead his victory most likely reinforced the practice.”
This is the truth of 2012: money beat money.
To believe otherwise is naïve, just as it is naïve in the extreme to imagine that the money-and-media election complex ground to some kind of halt in November 2012. To the contrary, it has not yet built up to full force. That’s a daunting prospect, but it is also good news. Before it becomes the status quo, we may have an opportunity to intervene. But for that to happen, we must understand how we got to this point, how this system operates, what the consequences are, where it appears to be heading, and what Americans can and must do to get their nation back on the democratic grid. That is the purpose of this book.
The immediate effect of the money-and-media election complex is to encourage election campaigns, like those in 2012, that do not even begin to address the societal pathologies afflicting the people of the United States. The trillion dollars spent annually on militarism and war is off-limits to public review and debate. Likewise, the corporate control of the economy and the corporate domination of government itself get barely a nod. Stagnation, gaping economic inequality, growing poverty, and collapsing infrastructure and social services—major issues all—are accorded nothing more than the market-tested drivel candidates say to get votes. The existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear weaponry are virtually off-limits as campaign-season issues; whole debates that are supposed to go to the heart of domestic and global concerns pass by without mention of them. The drug war, which has created a prison-industrial complex so vast that the United States has a greater percentage of its population imprisoned than any other nation in history, is not to be mentioned—except when obviously engaged and concerned citizens force the issue onto the ballot via the initiative process.
The United States, like much of the world, is in a period of crisis, not unlike the 1930s or the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert M. La Follette. But now the stakes are higher. Mainstream politics, following elections, seems increasingly irrelevant to addressing these grave, even existential, challenges. As a result, they are untended and grow more severe. Something has to give; this can’t go on forever, or even very much longer. It is in all our interests that these problems be addressed by democratic governance and sooner rather than later. The alternative is an ugly picture, one that is entirely unnecessary.
As the subsequent chapters will demonstrate, widespread popular disillusionment with contemporary elections and the political system is anything but irrational. The type of society we have is far better understood as a Dollarocracy than as a democracy. We have a system that is now defined more by one dollar, one vote than by one person, one vote. We live in a society where a small number of fabulously wealthy individuals and giant corporations control most of the dollars—and by extension have most of the political power. They buy election results that give them control over the government, and they hire lobbyists to fine-tune that control so that the distribution of wealth and income continually skews to their advantage. This is not a mystery. Polling shows that more than 60 percent of Americans understand that the nation’s economic structure is “out of balance” and that it favors a “very small portion of the rich” over everyone else." And they despair that political structures are so skewed and corrupted that nothing will change this circumstance. As political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters characterized American governance circa 2012, “Democracy appears chronically dysfunctional when it comes to policies that impinge on the rich.”
To be clear, elections are not entirely worthless—especially on the handful of issues where the wealthy do not necessarily have a horse in the race. Popular forces can prevail, even against increasing odds, and we admire and respect numerous politicians who enter and occasionally succeed in the electoral arena. Elections will remain among the main playing fields for politics in the visible future. Our argument is simply that the degree of difficulty that citizens confront when they seek to use the election process to effectively control government policies is vastly higher than it has been in memory. And it will only get worse unless Americans do something about it. A difficult truth lurks not far in the future: if our elections get appreciably more corrupt, extending the trajectory they were already on in 2012, the use of the term “democracy” to describe the United States will be inaccurate in even the weakest sense of the term. The point, then, is not to abandon elections, but to make them viable and credible.
1. Editorial, “Election Winners and Losers: Americans Voted in Large Numbers, but Voters Need to Be Better Served at the Polls. Meanwhile, Republicans Must Pause to Reflect,” Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2012.
2. Nicholas Confessore, “Results Won’t Limit Campaign Money Any More Than Ruling Did,” New York Times, November 11, 2012.
3. Jillian Berman, “Most Americans Say Economic Structure Favors ‘Very Small Portion of the Rich’: WSJ/NBC Poll,” Huffington Post, November 8, 2011.
4. Jeffrey A. Winters, “Democracy and Oligarchy,” The American Interest, November/December 2011, 18.
Table of Contents
Foreword: By Senator Bernie Sanders
Preface: Introduction: Privilege Resurgent
1: This is Not What Democracy Looks Like
2: The $10 Billion Election: What It Looks Like When Billionaires Start Spending
3: The Architects of Dollarocracy: Lewis Powell,John Roberts, and the Robber Baron Court
4: The Bull Market: Political Advertising
5: Media Corporations: Where the Bucks Stop
6: The Rise and Fall of Professional Journalism
7: Journalism Exits, Stage Right
8: Digital Politics: There Is No Such Thing
as “Too Much Information”
9: The Right to Vote: Beginning the New Age of Reform