Spend a moment or two this afternoon to reflect on a recent pair of pieces in major East Coast newspapers focusing on money and politics in the era of Citizens United and the Super PAC. Taken together, they show what it is that gets overlooked when the money is speech side defends Citizens United.
The first is an op-ed by Boston Globe columnist Tom Keane that takes critics (who now make up a majority of Americans) of Citizens United to task. "How much, really, does the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission undermine the electoral process?" Keane asks. "The thinking of those appalled by Citizens United is not especially complimentary to the electorate...That seems to be the theory, however: Voters are easily led and easily bamboozled, pushed this way and that by whatever ads they happen to encounter."
So relax, Keane says. More money in politics is just part of the grand pageant that is election year America. "[Television viewers] know that just because Pepsi says it’s better than Coke doesn’t mean it really is. And they know as well that just because one super PAC calls a politician a fraud, liar, or crook doesn’t mean that too is true."
And you're not dumb, right? And neither are your friends or family, so there's no reason to worry. Absolutely no one believes things that they see on television. Citizens United - solved!
In fact, Citizens United's impact on our politics is much more complex, and frankly more insidious, as Thomas Frank has pointed out. This is where the second piece of note, a New York Times Magazine cover story by Robert Draper on the Obama re-election campaign's Super PAC Priorities USA Action, comes into play.
Draper's piece hones in on some creative efforts by Priorities USA Action, made up of ex-Administration staffers, to make do with considerably less funds than the slew of GOP and Romney Super PACs have had to play with. So what is it that Super PACs do with all that money? Sure, they buy ads. But it’s more than just ads - they create a narrative, a story that determines the spectrum of speech and thought over the course of a campaign.
"The pro-Obama super PAC would take dead aim at these very specific pockets of swing voters," writes Draper. "Their weapon would be, in [Priorities USA Action consultant Paul] Begala’s words, 'ruthless, relentless storytelling.'"
Once these ads, repeated again and again, enter the echo chamber, that's what the campaign is reduced to. Nothing about melting ice caps, or Afghanistan, or drone attacks. Just the messaging priorities of Priorities USA Action.
Of course, controlling the narrative is politics and how elections are won. But the gap that Citizens United and Super PACs have helped create is that the narrative, the story that determines the spectrum of speech and thought over the course of a campaign, is now almost exclusively the province of the ultra-rich.
This is the impact that dark money has. It's not affecting what voters choose to believe or disbelieve on a specific issue, but what can even be discussed.