by Stan Cutler
Are you appalled by the candidates? Have you dismissed “the campaign” as a reality show? Are you pessimistic about the prospects for reform? Do you believe that our system is corrupt? Are you more partisan than you have ever been? If you answer ‘yes’ to these questions, you are a typical American voter – welcome to the cynical majority, the dominant political grouping of Americans in 2016.
Our political troubles are systemic. The form of patriotism that I was taught in the Philadelphia public schools, way back in the day, was a democratic value system. It wasn’t about fighter jet fly-overs, or our troops, or flags as big as football fields. I was taught a democratic value system founded on notions of justice, equality, freedom, laws and the American spirit.
I once was proud of that system. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked, in a cumbersome fashion. The system, our democracy, was once the best thing about America. But something seems to have gone badly wrong.
Our political process has succumbed to market forces. Even now, as a few of us old-school patriots grumble in the corners, the ability of a politician to pay for advertising has become required, as if fund-raising is an essential qualification for office. Most of us accept the financial imperatives of the news/media/politics companies as sacrosanct, untouchable. But those companies produce the campaigns to fit the tastes of an audience, they shape the process, they dominate the system.
The political parties have a symbiotic relationship to the media/news companies – they absolutely need each other to survive. But I don’t think audience share is a form of election. The courts need to be challenged to weigh our collective right to an ever-improving democracy against the right of networks to make a profit.
We have come to believe that our only hope lies in changing the donkey to elephant ratio in Washington. That would work if the donkeys and the elephants were not creatures of the system. We are seduced by the personalities, as if elections are serialized dramas featuring our favorite celebrities. We have become captivated by the question of who’s going to “win,” as if politics is the same as a televised sport. For the purposes of the media conglomerates, politics, sports and soap operas are all the same — content crafted to attract an audience.
The more effective the programming in attracting audience share, the greater the incentive for more shows of the same sort to be produced. Interest in the campaign is a sales opportunity. The news programs, besides informing us about who’s up or down, promote the campaign itself. The longer political marketing campaigns last, the greater the number of opportunities for commercial advertising. By the final month of the campaign, the viewership and the advertising rates swell to record levels – election after election.
I would be really down in the dumps if I didn’t think there were solutions. There are remedies. Some of you are saying that all would be well if we could only reverse the Citizens United Decision. The Supreme Court ruled that spending money on political expression is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Candidates in both parties have said they would favor a Constitutional Amendment that would counteract the decision, which enables unlimited expenditures by anyone, including corporations and PACs, but none of them are clear about how it would be worded.
Worse, the amendment process is sure to fall victim to partisanship. But that’s looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Yes, financing is a problem, but so are costs. Instead of concentrating all of our outrage on the financiers, we should also be looking at who’s getting paid.
There are legal, Constitutional ways to regulate the media and to abbreviate the process. We must make the campaigns shorter – the longer they last, the longer the viewing season, the more incentive the media companies have to prolong the process. Congress has the right to set the dates of elections (Article 1, Section 4, U.S. Constitution). The state primary elections for federal candidates ought to be simultaneous. The costs of campaigning will shrink dramatically.
The news/media/politics conglomerates have to be regulated, as any public utility. This includes setting maximum rates for political messages and dictating fairness of access and distribution. Electric companies and water companies are regulated this way because a civilized population requires reliable water and electricity. We need the media, but we need our democracy too.
Back in 1994, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) legislation was passed that reconfigured the media/news/telephone/cable industry in a way that promoted conglomeration and greater corporate autonomy. In 1996, the FCC changed the “fairness doctrine” requiring broadcasters to provide equal time to candidates.
The FCC, internally, decided that the fairness doctrine violated the First Amendment. That in-house policy has not been subjected to judicial review. Federal communications legislation has to be rewritten in such a way that our rights to a sane electoral process are protected from market forces. By the way, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is toothless, authorized to collect contributor data and little else.
Cheer up. It will soon be spring time – the snow will be gone, the flowers will bloom, and there will only be seven months remaining before the 2016 General Election.
If you have reform ideas of your own, or if you’d just like to vent, drop your thoughts as comments on my blog, www.stanleycutler.com or send a letter to the Local’s editors.