|Number 56||January 28, 2000|
This Week: That Campaign
The first time someone sees the mating dance of the common loon on a northern Minnesota lake, they are often startled and amused, and usually wonder if there is something wrong with a creature who would behave in such a bizarre way. But ornithologists understand that loons are not like us, and one must try to think like a loon in order to understand the meaning and purpose of this behavior.
I thought of this while listening to a debate between the Presidential candidates last week. So this week I offer the first in a series of pieces aimed at helping readers to understand the bizarre behavior exhibited by these men that we will see on TV every day for the next nine months. (Hint: This is not mating behavior!)
On a related note, I realize that I’ve been ripping a lot on George Bush lately, but I don’t want to give the impression that he’s that much worse than the rest. It’s just that he’s the Governor of Texas, for cripes’ sake, so it’s really easy to check his record. Plus, he’s got 70 million dollars, or something, and the candidate with the most money should be exposed first, I figure. But rest assured we’ll get to the rest of them. As the Wicked Witch of the West would say, “All in good time, my pretties, all in good time!”
Until next week, I remain,
Your political ornithologist,
“It is an indisputable fact of our political system that those candidates and laws favored by wealthy contributors usually prevail over those whose backers, or would-be backers, cannot afford to give large sums.”
(From the introduction to the excellent study “The Color of Money: Campaign Contributions and Race,” published in 1999 by the non-profit organization Public Campaign.)
Last week, in speaking about hunger, I promised that this week I would address the question, “Is our state willing to deal with reality?”
That’s all I have room for this week. Details NEXT week. (I promise.)
There is a regular feature in the Sunday edition of our local paper the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) called “If you ran the newspaper.” The Star Trib employs a man named Lou Gelfand in a position which they call the “reader representative.” Mr. Gelfand is the guy you talk to if you have something to say about how the paper is doing its job or, as the tag on his column says, he “catches bouquets and brickbats from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday.” Then, on Sunday, he takes his favorite comments and writes them up in his column. (Exactly how a man who is paid by the newspaper is supposed to “represent” readers who have a problem with the newspaper has always been a puzzle to me, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject.)
This past Sunday Mr. Gelfand responded to somebody who had a problem with the Star Trib’s coverage of the presidential campaign. What they said was not very interesting, but the statement the reader representative published in response from the national editor of the paper, a Mr. Roger Buoen, was a close runner-up for my Quote of the Week. Speaking of the campaign for Prez, he said, “In general, we’re planning to shy away from coverage of strategy and gamesmanship, and concentrate on what the candidates are saying, what their qualifications are, their record and performance, and their plans for the future.”
This wouldn’t have been hilarious if I hadn’t first looked at the banner headline across the top of the entire front page (same section, same day!) which read, “Iowa’s prize: The boost or the boot.” The focus of this major front-page article about the Iowa primary elections? You guessed it: Strategy and gamesmanship. Complete with comments on “the expectations game,” candidate Gary Bauer’s visit to the “grave of a fetus,” and the opinion of some opinion-poll guy telling us that “McCain may have peaked too early.” “The game has been afoot for weeks,” reporter Bob von Sternberg tells us. For eons, I’m sure he meant to say. Just to be positive, I read the whole darned thing, but I couldn’t find a word about the candidates’ “qualifications, record, performance, or plans for the future.”
Well, Mr. Gelfand, if I really did run the newspaper...oh, never mind.
I commented months ago on the numerous studies which appear to show that most people aren’t paying much attention to the Presidential campaign. (“Stop the Presses! More News You Don’t Care About,” NN #45). Beyond that, the majority of eligible Americans won’t vote for any of these guys. My theory is that this is largely because a) the candidates are boring, b) the coverage of the candidates is boring, c) most of us believe that the eventual winner will do very little to change our lives for the better, and d) for horse race coverage, most people turn to the sports page.
Nonetheless, there is quite a bit of important stuff to be learned from the Presidential horse race - er, I mean campaign - if you know how to decode the signals.
One of those signals is money. Some people think that money has no significant influence on political activity in this country. These people don’t read Nygaard Notes, however, plus they’ve been living in bathyspheres at the bottom of the ocean for two centuries, so we can ignore them.
The rest of us are correct, I believe, in thinking that money has deformed and corrupted our political system quite profoundly.
Literally minutes after I wrote that last sentence I got in the car to go meet my sister for dinner and turned on Minnesota Public Radio. On the air was some leader of a Political Action Committee, or PAC, responding to an accusation that money from groups like his has, well, deformed and corrupted our political system. Here’s what he said in his defense (and I am able to quote him almost exactly): “We don’t ever try to buy politicians in Minnesota because, frankly, I don’t think they are ‘buyable.’ What we do is, we study their records and their statements. If we like what they are doing, we say to them, ‘Hey, we know campaigns are expensive, and we want to help you get your ideas out to the public.’ That’s how we make our decisions on whose campaign to contribute to.”
If you can decode what he is really saying, it can help you enormously if you want to understand why our campaigns are the way they are.
I can’t count the number of times I have sat in a room listening to people accuse editors and journalists of letting advertisers influence their reporting of the news. Here’s what the journalists say, almost without exception: “I have never had an advertiser even talk to me about what goes into the paper (or my story or my column). That just doesn’t happen. We are professional journalists. There is a fire wall between the advertising department and the editorial department.” And so forth. I believe them. I think it’s rather rare for an advertiser to influence a journalist by directly asking for this or that.
Politicians say pretty much the same things in their own defense. “I don’t even think about campaign contributions when I cast my votes,” they say. I believe them, too. I don’t think most politicians are for sale.
I can hear readers saying to themselves, “Yah, you betcha, Nygaard, and I betcha you believe in the tooth fairy, too.” (At least I can hear native-born Minnesotans saying this.) Now don’t get me wrong. I do believe that advertisers affect the way that the news is presented, as I explained in NN #30, and I also believe that there is a correlation between campaign contributions and voting records. But am I not contradicting myself? How can I say that campaign contributions are correlated with votes, and still say politicians are not for sale?
Investing in Politicians
Income and wealth inequality in the United States is higher than most other industrial countries in the world, if not all of them, and it’s getting worse. This means that we have a society in which relatively few people have most of the money and this translates into them also having most of the power. Those few people want to keep their money and their power. In the age of the huge corporation and the decline of labor unions, the only institution that real ability to challenge their wealth and power is government. Rich people know this, so they want to make sure that, as much as possible, the people in the government do not want to challenge their wealth and power.
Now think about the stock market. In the stock market, people with money are constantly looking to buy stock in the companies that will make the most money for them in the shortest amount of time. Short-term profitability boosts the value of stock. Even if a company treats its workers or the environment badly, the value of its stock will go up if it looks like it will make profits in the short term. As I’ve said before (“Media in the Free Market,” NN #23), it’s not that the Market necessarily has anything against workers or the environment; it just has no use for them. And so it is with politicians.
The people who buy stock in corporations are the same people who give money to politicians, and they do it for the same reasons: it’s in their self-interest to do so. That’s why you often see individuals or corporations who contribute to both major parties, or even to opposing candidates in the same election. These people are looking, very strategically and closely, at the patterns of behavior that a given candidate has shown, and making shrewd predictions as to how that candidate will behave in the future. Just like they do with their market investments. Recall the PAC-man I quoted earlier. This is exactly what he said, in slightly different words, although he was presenting it as a defense of the system, not as a fundamental problem.
The monied class is not all of one mind. Some contributors will search for politicians who are unabashed defenders of the unfettered Free Market. They look for the candidates who say “Government is bad!” and that have records to back up those words. And they give them lots of money.
The “liberal” wing of the monied class, on the other hand, looks for politicians who embrace the Free Market but realize that it needs some help from government to keep it strong. These people want to reform the Free Market in some way. By passing a Patient’s Bill of Rights, for example. But the important thing is that these politicians can be expected to limit their proposals - or, even better, their thoughts - to tinkering around the edges rather than talking about going to the roots. These politicians will also get lots of money.
There are politicians out there who believe that the hunger, homelessness, and environmental destruction that characterize American society are problems that cannot be addressed without changing the relations of power in our society. They will not get lots of money. Sometimes they will win elections, but usually they will be the elections that one can win with nothing more than a few thousand dollars and a lot of hard work. Park board, city council, maybe a state representative. But when it comes to raising the millions it takes to be the President, or a U.S. Senator, it becomes awfully hard to find “investors.”
That’s how the market “weeds out” people interested in real change, or anything that might lead to real change. It’s not that rich donors give politicians money and then expect them to follow orders, as many people seem to think. They just reward “good behavior,” as they understand it, and in the process they select for success politicians who are the least likely to really rock the boat.
This selection happens long before the first vote is cast by any actual voters. Haven’t you ever wondered how we come to have “major” candidates many months before the first votes are ever cast? Now you know.
It’s not a conspiracy. It’s just a few thousand millionaires and billionaires, each acting in their own self-interest, and each one of whom understands that American democracy is, in a very real sense, a “marketplace of ideas.” And each of whom understands exactly how to play the market.
Next week: Multiple-choice democracy? I say: “None of the above.”