Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Zombies for Sale

Scotus Week continues here in the States, and while the main event (the healthcare reform ruling) won't come cartwheeling into the ring until tomorrow, Monday's first act caused a considerable hubub. There was the surprising draw match in the matter of Arizona v. United States, but what raised my eyebrow (and blood pressure) was the United States Supreme Court's reversal of the Montana Supreme Court's decision in Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Attorney General of Montana. In a nutshell: the Supreme Court still believes its Citizens United ruling was a fine thing, and that a state government with a contrary law on its books needs to get with the program.

You've certainly heard enough wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the Supreme Court's pernicious decision that the United States would be better off as a de facto oligarchy, so I'll try not to do any more bitching here. But I do bitch about it. And sometimes my bitching enters the ears of younger folks who, for whatever reason, aren't constantly wringing their hands and reloading's frontpage every twenty minutes. Occasionally these kids will ask me what I'm screaming about and want to know the reason why Citizens United tends to make people hysterical.

What's the story with Citizens United? Well, it basically entitles tremendously wealthy entities to make indefinitely tremendous political expenditures. In order to keep pace with their opponents on the campaign trail, politicians will be cuddling up even closer to business interests in exchange for donations.

Well, gosh! But what do all these donations buy? Well, they buy. You see, it takes a lot of. Hmm. Well. This is a good question.

Let's get our facts together here with some help from!

According to a breakdown of campaign expenditures in 2008, of the $6.53 million spent on communications in the 2008 presidential elections, about $3.6 million went towards "broadcast media," i.e. television spots. And whoever spends the most money on television adverts is probably going to win the election. Small block quote from part of an election roundup:

The historic election of 2008 re-confirmed one truism about American democracy: Money wins elections.

From the top of the ticket, where Barack Obama declined public financing for the first time since the system's creation and went on to amass a nearly two-to-one monetary advantage over John McCain, to congressional races throughout the nation, the candidate with the most money going into Election Day emerged victorious in nearly every contest.

In 93 percent of House of Representatives races and 94 percent of Senate races that had been decided by mid-day Nov. 5, the candidate who spent the most money ended up winning, according to a post-election analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The findings are based on candidates' spending through Oct. 15, as reported to the Federal Election Commission.

Continuing a trend seen election cycle after election cycle, the biggest spender was victorious in 397 of 426 decided House races and 30 of 32 settled Senate races. On Election Day 2006, top spenders won 94 percent of House races and 73 percent of Senate races. In 2004, 98 percent of House seats went to the biggest spender, as did 88 percent of Senate seats.

There's a rarely-discussed subtext here, and a question that isn't usually posed. Why does this happen? Why in the world should the candidate with the most television commercials win the election? That's not how the system was built, was it? 

Why would TV adverts (or robocalls and and junk mail campaigns for that matter) be the determinants of a presidential election if the voters -- whose civic obligation it is to participate responsibly in said election -- are keeping abreast of current events, the accompanying issues, and the candidates' positions on them, like good citizens are supposed to do?

And it is not difficult to keep track of this stuff. The debates are all televised. We have armies of journalists following both campaign trails and investigating both candidates' histories, and they're all trying to one-up each other in bringing new information to the public's attention. And let's not forget that we're living in an age when finding a candidate's (any candidate's) stance on an issue of concern is as easy as typing (for instance) "romney on emissions" into Google and clicking the "search" button.

What person who knows his* own convictions, has determined which issues supersede the others in their importance to him, and has done his homework on the candidates, their backgrounds, and their pledges would be swayed in one direction or the other by an unctuous attack ad? For that matter, why would he need someone calling him or knocking on his door to remind him to cast his vote on election day?

Because these people don't determine our elections. Elections in America are determined by Americans. God help us.

Political campaigns spend oceans of cash on television adverts because all the data indicates that elections are determined by what strategists euphemise as "low-information voters:" the tens of millions of reality TV-watching, Budweiser-drinking, food court-plodding dunderheads who can be counted on to agree with whomever speaks loudest and to vote for the guy whose campaign ad they saw most recently (if they vote at all) because they can't be bothered to be distracted from their distractions. These are the people the campaigns need to reach in order to win, and they can do so most effectively by buying up more commercial time than their opponents.

Political organizations wouldn't be spending millions on flimflam if they didn't have very good reason to believe that the voting-age citizens upon whom an election depends are extremely susceptible to flimflam.

Yeah, well. What do you expect? People are stupid.

No! Shut up! They don't have to be. But we build them that way, and so they are.

This is a talk for another time, though.

You have to admit it's a very nice little game that's been arranged, though. You have a cadre of humungous multinational businesses and industries whose products, services, and collateral runoff make and keep Americans dull, disinterested, and tranquilized. (Whether this is by design or as a side effect varies on a case by case basis and is another conversation entirely.) Thanks to the Citizens United ruling, these entities can pump as much money into presidential campaigns as they please. The election effort becomes a contest between candidates to curry favor with enough of these entities to afford to broadcast their "messages" (vote for me because vote for me) to the largest percentage of the same masses that said entities have systematically zombified and rendered otherwise inaccessible. Whoever buys the most zombie votes then assumes his new position of power, which he uses to repay his obligation to the entities by helping them achieve a further consolidation of their power.

You'd almost suspect it had been orchestrated, like some sort of political Magic: the Gathering combo. But it's more likely that things just tend to work out for people when they're already controlling most of everything.

* Yes, yes, I know I use the male pronoun as a default, and I'm aware that it's exclusive on the implicit assumption that the voting "person" is male. But "his or her" is clunky and "their" is incorrect. Someday I will switch it up and default to female pronouns for a while.


  1. This is part of why I found "The Question of Control" so disturbing. Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" points out that "What's wrong with entertainment?" is not a rhetorical question. Industrialized, psychologically tuned entertainment not only sways opinion, but also conditions discourse to be amusing.

    Postman's book is as old as I am (1985), but despite a blip with the text-heavy early web I think he saw things pretty clearly.

    Jon Blow has made similar remarks specifically about video games:

    1. I need to read that Postman book. I've read a lot of stuff about it, but it might be time to hear it from the horse's mouth.

      And...yeah, I guess I'll also have to listen to what Mr. Blow has to say. Thanks for pointing it out!

  2. Future's so bright, we gotta wear shades.

    1. I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can, so I can...

      Does anyone actually know how the rest of that goes?

  3. "'Yeah, well. What do you expect? People are stupid.'

    No! Shut up! They don't have to be. But we build them that way, and so they are."

    I'd like to thank you a thousand times for just this one bit. What you're saying couldn't be more true, and I'm sick of people dismissing all kinds of idiocy with a simple: "people just are stupid, deal with it." It doesn't have to be that way!