Money and the Media Election Complex

Monday, September 16, 2013

Political journalist John Nichols describes how massive campaign spending has come to define our politics and challenges American democracy. His book Dollarocracy: How the Money and the Media Election Complex is Destroying America, which he co-authored with Robert W. McChesney, explains how our elections are becoming controlled and managed by consultants who wield millions of dollars and influence our politics as never before. He argues that after the Citizens United ruling, American citizens are in danger of becoming less informed and more open to manipulation.


John Nichols

Comments [28]

Emma Goldman was of course correct: if voting changed anything it would be illegal.
The basic arguments of the guest are fine but facile: American plebiscites have always been structured either to exclude the common man/woman or to befuddle and disguise their choices. No historical change since John Adams tinkering with Sedition acts to prevent real sedition and people he didn't like much.
Some corrections: the founders would be horrified to hear that America is a democracy: the purpose of separation of powers and tortured balance of state and national politics is to approach a timocracy by stacking the deck toward conservative opinion (property, individual state opinion, etc.) in a quasi-Republic. Democracy was a dirty word applied as a pejorative to Pro French Revolutionary blowhards like the early Jefferson and the brutish Jackson that became synonymous with the corrupt political machines like Tammany.
But it was through that very corruption that some egalitarian sentiment managed to encroach on the plutocrats that have always (and will always) run the banks, the military, city hall and the bought and paid for halls of Congress.
The two party system is breaking down but supported by the fictions preserved by the US Constitution: as a control on the evils of "faction" it is powerless against the power of money to influence the mob (public opinion). What America needs is not a great leader (a tyrant in the old sense of the word), but an electorate with better hearts and less self-absorbed and uneducated minds.

Sep. 20 2013 08:32 AM
resident alien from Williamsburg

While it is true, that democracy is the worst political system - except all other political systems, not all democracies are created equal! America has (one of) the oldest , but also also one of the most dysfunctional and outdated democracies.

The defacto duopoly of only two parties has brought this country to it's knees & the Washington stalemate has brought the government near bankruptcy already once this year and the 2nd time coming up Sept. 30th...

No democracy is perfect, but a fatalistic social/political darwinistic attitude (jgarbuz) is wrong! There are plenty of middle & northern European countries where better, more just democracies have brought a higher standard of living to a higher percentage of it's citizens than in the US!

The best and most stable democracies have more than just two parties in parliament. If you have too many fractions though, you can end up with instability (Italy, Israel) or even dysfunction & chaos like in the Weimar republic.

For that a drastic political reform is necessary:
1. make every vote count!
there is a difference, if a party wins with 90% or only 51% or loses with 49% or only 2%.
Only then it will be possible for a new party to grow and establish itself and maybe, one day become part of a government. (i.e. it took the german green party (only) 30 years from a more radical start to being able to join government and nominate the foreign minister. Breaking the US duopoly is virtually impossible! (even for whacky billionaires like Ross Perot or more serious ones like Ralph Nader)

2. strict campaign finance reform!
In Germany, successful parties (that pass a 5% hurdle nationwide) get into parliament and get reimbursed for their campaign expenses (limited and at the same rate) That leads to more equality, less special interest influence and cheaper elections. (spending $1B on presidential campaigns by each party is nothing but obscene!)

Btw, gerrymandering is nothing but political manipulation and if you have to be a billionaire to become mayor of new york and to be relatively independent from other special interest group (besides your own), you know that the system is broken.

Sep. 16 2013 02:06 PM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

Daunting? Not really. Just get both (or more sides) to agree what is a pro- and what is a con- ad before the window for free airtime opens. I'd suggest that any advertising arbitrated to be 'on the line' NOT GET FREE AIR. This should give the candidates enough incentive to stay away from the line.

No one's rights are violated, so I do not see a First Amendment beef. You just don't get access to free air for negative ads. You can still air them if you pay.

Sep. 16 2013 01:14 PM
tom LI

As for the youth - none of them have witnessed any sort of real action, any real social or economic changes in their lifetimes. Not since the 70's has any of us seen anything real happen. All the youth have seen is bickering, and idealogical posturing over minutae.

One must witness real change to believe it can happen - and the youth over the last 3 decades have not seen any real changes brought about by any real legislative or political actions.

Bickering they can get at home and school.

Sep. 16 2013 01:06 PM
tom LI

As for the Media - local news is awful, usually nothing but accidents, weather hype, and only a few quick hits on any real issue/s. As for the larger News shows (I use the term shows on purpose) they are too easily distracted by silliness like Jodi Arias, or the latest missing blond chick, or speculating about why some celebrity of the day wiggled her arse on TV. And when they actually tackle a hard topic, its always a bunch of "experts" or reporters doing editorial/commentary. All blustering and filibustering - but short on the facts.

Rare is a news story that tells the actual story, in full with little or opinion or spin.

Plus now we're being numbed by an inordinate amount of snazzy technology that might look great, but do little to further a telling of a news story/event.

All compounded by a public that has the attention span of a goldfish.

Sep. 16 2013 12:59 PM

NY State's ballot access laws make it very difficult for minor parties and insurgent candidates to get on the ballot. The election laws are designed to protect the party bosses from competition. The bipartisan Board of Elections is appointed by the Republican and the Democrat Party Boss. If they wrongfully decide to remove you from the ballot, they send you a slow mail one page decision. You have three days from the sending of that decision to petition a Judge who must seek renomination from the same party bosses who want you off the ballot. All opposers of your petition must be served within that 3 days. The petition must state which invalidated signatures are wrongly invalidated.
In Suffolk this year, we will have a Stalinist election, where there will be only one candidate on the ballot for D.A., and only one for Sheriff.

Sep. 16 2013 12:50 PM

Does WNYC publish a listing of its 1000 largest donors large donors?

Is WNYC considering not using "corporate" donations for "political" broadcasts?

How much money do the Koch Brothers (or the Tisch Family) contribute to NPR and/or WNYC?

So you want to amend the Constitution? Sounds like a plan.

" . . . For a century, the Statists have steadfastly constructed a federal Leviathan, distorting and evading our constitutional system in pursuit of an all-powerful, ubiquitous central government. The result is an ongoing and growing assault on individual liberty, state sovereignty, and the social compact. Levin argues that if we cherish our American heritage, it is time to embrace a constitutional revival. . . . "!&id=4183&is_corp=0

Sep. 16 2013 12:49 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I want a ban on political ads that have ominous music under "*Their* candidate. S/He'll ruin America." & upbeat music under "*Our* candidate loves America & will make everything wonderful!" I don't even mean the content of the ads. I'm so sick of the cliched way they use music! Does that really convince anybody? (How about that for a Please Explain segment?)

Sep. 16 2013 12:44 PM
tom LI

All good info and ideas - but the majority of Americans have given up on being active, and concerned citizens. All for the pursuit of leisure activities. The reality s out there, and the Power Brokers know that more people vote for American Idol, et al, pay more attention to their Fantasy Sports teams, and cute kitten videos - than politics and most especially anything under the Economics umbrella.

The US needs a REAL social Leader to start waking us all up. Or - as is most likely - a real social breakdown as the result of an unprecedented Economic Collapse. Till then, its Leisure and more leisure - even if most people can't afford it...

Sep. 16 2013 12:42 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Make all the reforms and revolutions you want, in the end it will ALWAYS end up the same. Those who are capable of creating wealth will always rise back to the top of economic ladder, and will shape government policies up to the point that the workers will get angry again, and start the process of reform and revolution all over again. It's an endless cycle that always ends up with the same ending. Those who are best at producing wealth end up at the top of the food chain.

Sep. 16 2013 12:42 PM
Henry from nyc

great point by your guest

Sep. 16 2013 12:42 PM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

Passed the time for a Constitutional convention....

-Article the First (passed but NEVER enacted). The House should have 6,000 voting seats. Sorry not everybody gets an office, staff, a committee membership or a pension!
-Time to adjust the 2nd Amendment to permit limits to 'keep and bear arms'
-Bar gerrymandering (amen)
-One citizen, one vote in federal and state elections. Voter's original intent and audit trails required.

Sep. 16 2013 12:41 PM
Amy from Manhattan

A law banning gerrymandering sounds great, but how would it be written so as to be effective? How would it define gerrymandering, & what measures would work to end it?

Sep. 16 2013 12:39 PM


Lawrence Lessig makes cogent observations in a similar vein.

Sep. 16 2013 12:38 PM
Marc from Brooklyn

Re RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey:

How would you differentiate "negative" from "positive" political ads, such that such a regulation would pass constitutional muster vis a vis the First Amendment?

Sounds rather daunting, doesn't it?

You'll note that electoral participation rates are lowest among the under the thirty demographic, and highest among retirees. For whatever reason, people are coming out of school already tuning politics out.

Why? And why isn't this guy addressing that, why graduates fresh out of his classes are apathetic towards politics?

Sep. 16 2013 12:36 PM

Zombie Politics?

Sep. 16 2013 12:31 PM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

Yes NPR News and the “cult of balance.”

Sep. 16 2013 12:31 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

How can the Left ever be wrong? After all, aren't they the "vanguard of the proletariet?" The Left knows what's good for The People. Lenin said so. Krugman says so. So it must be true :)

Sep. 16 2013 12:30 PM
tom from astoria

Coolidge said "the business of America is business" But the press is falling short of covering GLOBAL business practice: example: why does the press not cover job creation in China and the US at the same time? You can bet that corporate leaders know the full story on who and where their employees are and what their wage scales are.

Sep. 16 2013 12:29 PM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

@Marc from Brooklyn

The last two minutes appear to have skewered your argument....Paid advertising is used to confuse/turn off people from voting and it is working.

We would see a turnaround if positive ads could run for free but negative ads had to be paid by the candidate or his committees.

Sep. 16 2013 12:28 PM

How 'bout the never ending, self fulfilling drone of poll "results".

Sep. 16 2013 12:27 PM

What kind of I.D., if any, does Norway require for voting?

Sep. 16 2013 12:24 PM
Marc from Brooklyn

What this guy says is all well and good, but he's only mentioned tangentially at best declining electoral participation rates, and declining ratings for hard news broadcasts. Perhaps this should prompt another question, a question about our educational systems. Is what's coming out of our educational systems being turned off to politics by the very people teaching it?

Then again, being a poly-sci professor, I wouldn't expect him to ask that kind of question, just rail against the influence of money, money, money!

If you really want to know why people are so turned off to politics, let's start by examining the loads of self-serving noise being served up by guys like this. That should prove interesting.

Sep. 16 2013 12:23 PM

Did this guy just liken DiBlasio to Beame?

Heck, next he'll be comparing New York City to Detroit!

Of course all corporate expressions of political opinion (except for the ones one agrees with, should be banned.

Sep. 16 2013 12:22 PM
Amy from Manhattan

The center has moved steadily to the right since the days of Pres. Reagan, so a barely left of center position is now perceived as "far left."

On failures of the press, the outstanding example for me was the last time the NYC City Charter was revised. I did my best to follow the issues before the referendum, but when reporters stood w/City Council Speaker Peter Vallone & said, "I'm here with the 2nd most powerful person in the city government," it was the 1st time I'd heard that new charter would increase the speaker's power so much. I didn't hear anyone mention it up to that point (but I don't remember if I was listening to WNYC yet!).

Sep. 16 2013 12:21 PM

Brian Lehrer LOVES the horse race.

Sep. 16 2013 12:19 PM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

Franchised voters being informed well enough to make a rational choice IS NOT mob rule, jgarbuz.

The FCC-licensed entities should present the news commercial free - at least one hour per day.

Pre-election political advertising should be presented WITHOUT CHARGE for the six weeks before an election.

Public campaign financing for ALL! Unless you like tax policy, declarations of war, environmental regulation, education funding, et alia, to be for sale to the highest bidder.

Sep. 16 2013 12:18 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

What's so new about all this? Since the beginning of civilization there has been one Golden Rule: They who have the gold, rule. Show me a single civilization where the wealthy elite didn't basically run government policy?

When mobs rule, what we get is anarchy. Look at the French revolution. Mobs run wild for a short while, and then those who create employment take back over. The "owners of production" are going to basically make most government policy, because they employ most of the people.

Sep. 16 2013 12:13 PM

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