There’s good news this week. There’s only about two weeks before the midterm elections.
Now for the bad news. There’s still about two more weeks to be garroted by TV ads.
Back-to-back-to-back, we are choking on lies, distortions, and half-truths. This year may go into history as having the most vicious attack ads since the “dark ages” shortly after the nation was founded. Biggest difference? More than two centuries later, most of the ads scream at you from television rather than partisan newspapers.
Between $3.5 and $4.5 billion will be spent on campaign ads this season. That’s one to two billion more than was spent during the midterm elections four years ago.
One of the reasons for the increase in spending is that the conservative wing of the Republican party has launched an all-out assault to once again take over Congress. Another reason is that they got a supreme assist in January. The Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote along party lines, decided in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission [130 S.Ct. 876] that the First Amendment applies to corporations, which now would enjoy the same protections given to citizens and associations of citizens. The decision essentially obliterated the gains made by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known as the McCain–Feingold Act) and a Supreme Court decision (McConnell v. FEC; 540 U.S. 93) a year later that ruled most of the Act constitutional.
In a strongly-worded dissent in the Citizens United case, Justice John Paul Stevens declared the Supreme Court’s decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. . . . [It is] a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.” Justice Stevens further argued that, “While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” President Obama called the decision, “a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
Eight of the 10 groups that have bought the most TV advertising this election lean to the Republicans, according to an analysis of by the Wesleyan Media Project.
And that brings us to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, second in spending only to the Republican Governors Association. The Chamber of Commerce, along with the National Rifle Association, was one of the most vigorous supporters of the Citizens United legal case to extend First Amendment protections to corporations. At one time, the Chamber was non-partisan. During the past decade, it has become an advocacy group for conservative candidates and ideology. For this election, it has promised to spend about $75 million in campaign ads. Because the Chamber, a non-profit agency, doesn’t need to report its contribution and spending to the Federal Elections Commission, the nation is left wondering if it’s true, as the President charges, that significant donations are from foreign companies and governments. Those contributions are illegal under U.S. law. The Chamber claims it does receive foreign money but doesn’t use it for political advertising—but refuses to disclose specifics. Even if the Chamber doesn’t use foreign money for political ads, the revenue it receives from foreign money frees up its budget to increase spending for a right-wing agenda. Four years ago, almost every organization disclosed where their funds came from. This year, according to FEC data, only about one-third of the organizations have done so.
Republicans have put a “face” on their attack ads, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who appears in more anti-Democrat campaign ads than any Democrat running for office, is seen as everything evil. Perhaps it’s because she is a powerful woman who represents San Francisco, a district that is racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse. Pelosi, and most Democrats in hotly contested races, are portrayed as Pelosi puppets who voted for the stimulus bill and health care reform, both seen erroneously by the ultra-conservative wing as socialist or Marxist programs. Most objective analysts say that the stimulus bill, even with its flaws, kept the nation out of sinking into a Depression, and that health reform, derisively known as Obamacare, has significantly improved the nation’s health care while keeping costs down. However, President Obama doesn’t appear in too many attack ads. For the Party on the White to emphasize the “evils” of President Obama could result in a backlash.
In response, the Democrats have charged Republicans as being the “Party of NO,” with no social conscience and no political agenda, a party that blocks any reform or progress solely for political reasons. What the Democrats didn’t do is more important than what they did do. The Democrats have been unable to effectively use campaign advertising to portray the Republicans as the party in power when the nation entered into an unjustified $1 trillion war in Iraq, created the greatest deficit in American history, refused to stop Wall Street and bank greed, allowed the mortgage crisis to develop and undermine American security, brought about double-digit unemployment, and shoved the nation into one of its greatest recessions.
But, here’s another reality. TV ads, like newspaper editorials, seldom change anyone’s preconceived opinions. Liberals continue to support liberals. Conservatives continue to support conservatives. The “independent” middle, sometimes known as a “soft vote” because both parties try to grab it, is largely a myth. The “soft middle” may not be influenced by any campaign ad—and they may not even vote.
So, what is the purpose of TV ads and the significant increase in funding? Simply, it’s to hold and reinforce the base. Conservatives have done much better to rally their base than have liberals this year. If the conservatives retake either or both houses of Congress, it will not be because the Obama administration failed. It will be because the conservatives spent significantly more on a full-range media campaign that included a dominant TV presence, rallied their base, controlled the news media, which controlled the agenda, and effectively blocked an ineffective Democratic response that failed to counter lies, distortions, and half-truths.
[Walter Brasch’s latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can, a witty and probing look at the media and American culture. It is available from Amazon.com and other stores.]