The subject of money in politics is front and center in this year’s campaign. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 ruled that the first amendment prohibits government from restricting independent political spending by corporations and (to a much smaller extent in practice) unions. The April 2 McCutcheon v. FEC decision extended limits on individual donations to $3.6 million per election cycle. As a result, we’ll be assaulted with well-funded political messages and attack ads until election day.
Or will we? I’ve been urging people to hit the mute button every time a campaign commercial appears on their screen.
I can think of at least three good reasons. First, for our peace of mind. These communications drive us crazy, even when we agree with their content. I mean, how often do you want to see the same message with maybe one coherent idea over and over, even when you switch channels? They’re not what Casey Stengel referred to as “deep depth.”
Second, televised messages operate on the notion that only money — $6 billion of it spent in the last presidential and congressional campaigns — can win seats. If we stopped paying attention cold turkey, big donors would get the message that other, more palatable forms of communication work better. Without the quick fix of television, voters might actually base their decisions on — dare I say it? — interpersonal communication and the printed word! You may say I’m a dreamer, but substance could actually trump cheap shots.
Third, if less money were spent on campaigns, our elected officials might not be so responsive to their well-heeled donors. They might even think about the needs of ordinary citizens.
It’s worth pausing over the last point. A good politician, regardless of party label or ideological bent, is one who at least marginally improves the lives of ordinary citizens struggling to pay their rents or mortgages. Instead, to take just one example, we’ve had financial reform that let bankers and Wall Street off the hook while costing ordinary people their homes to subprime mortgages. Things would be different if power flowed upward from the grass roots rather than downward from the moneyed classes. That would begin to happen if television’s influence were, well, muted.
I’ve been getting a good response to my idea, but I’d like to address the concerns of people who disagree with it.
One friend issued a long defense of the Citizens United decision. My buddy said that to oppose Citizens United is to deprive its beneficiaries of the free-speech right to issue publications and other directives.
I told him that my position would not affect Citizens United, (not to mention McCutcheon v. FEC), which, whether we like it or not, is the law. Fat cats can spend just about as freely as they want — and we can ignore them just as freely.
Another respondent said he watches campaign messages, because some of them amuse him. But just think of the dreck he has to sit through to find them! I advised him to watch The Daily Show for his comedy fix.
A third kvetcher said he didn’t want to shut off all political commercials, because some of them are publicly funded. Fine. I’ll give him an exception if these interruptions say “Publicly Funded” in the first five seconds. In any case, they amount to a small fraction of what we sit through during campaigns.
Yet a fourth questioner asked why I didn’t mention radio or print messages. Fair point. Other than sending a check to my preferred candidate, I’d throw out all political mail and listen to nothing but commercial-free National Public Radio during campaigns. While we’re at it, I respond to political phone calls by saying, “We’re on the Do Not Call List. Sorry.”
I’m not suggesting that Super PACs will melt away if we don’t watch their televised messages. But their influence on television has already waned slightly. It’s now accepted wisdom that President Obama was re-elected in large part because he had a superior message and better ground game, meaning more offices creating more person-to-person interactions with voters in swing states, than the Romney campaign.
Entering my crowded polling place in Northampton on election day 2012, I found myself blinking back tears when I realized that the people, not the billions spent to attract them with snazzy graphics and simple-minded rhetoric, would decide the outcome.
I’m aware that some of you already mute campaign commercials. The problem is that their funders don’t know how many of us take this approach. I hope you’ll support me in numbers that impress the political establishment. Muting will send a loud message.
Jim Kaplan is the Gazette’s bridge columnist, author of The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Duel of the Century, and a contract adviser/grievance officer for the National Writers Union, Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.