Author and historian Thomas Frank has a thought-provoking new cover story in the April issue of Harper's (sorry, subscriber only) titled "It's A Rich Man's World: How billionaire backers pick America's candidates." It cuts to the heart of the problem with our post-Citizens United/SpeechNow/Super PAC political landscape in a way I haven't seen elsewhere.
Frank, who was interviewed by our very own Ken Gordon a month or so back about the issue of money and politics, says that "There is nothing new about money in American politics. It has twisted the people's will and infuriated the civic-minded for more than two centuries." The difference, says Frank, is first in "the sheer size" of spending that will take place this election, and the fact that Super PACs now provide a level of "deniability" to candidates about the quality of campaign discourse that voters haven't seen in the past - demonstrative of either profound naiveté or obscene cynicism on the part of the Supreme Court, an argument only in the loosest sense of the term (which Stephen Colbert and John Stewart have summarily dispatched).
The other big difference, says Frank, and far more disturbing for a historian like him, is that commentary around Citizens United, Super PACS, and money in campaign 2012 "virtually requires the media to ignore....that with every juicy morsel of hate [being broadcast], we are becoming more and more a rich man's country."
How, exactly? Not in the way we might think - that our votes won't be counted on election day, or that the tidal wave of ads sliming this or that candidate will break down Americans' ability to think straight by late October. It's far more insidious, writes Frank:
"The problem is that by putting such a price tag on the White House, we have imported market logic directly into our politics...in order to be a candidate - to be the kind of person who can make those calls to billionaires and get them to 'double down' - Americans will have to undergo a far more rigorous process of ideological winnowing and executive training. And anyone who isn't an absolute zealot about maximizing shareholder value will fail to make the cut."
What Frank is saying, then, is that the real damage that Citizens United, Super PACS, and money does to our politics won't come after the election, when the spoils of victory get divvied up and handed out (though, that'll certainly happen); the real harm will happen long before voting day - money will decide what our elections will be about, and the kind of candidates we get. Basically, money doesn't equal speech. It equals silence.
See update to this blog: (M)Ad Men