Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 October 2012

A Noose for America’s Middle Class


When you think about it, Citizens United is pretty neat. As most thinking people have realized by now, it lets the super-rich buy elections in secret, without even revealing who they are. They can hide behind a chain of shell corporations with names like “American Crossroads.”

But that’s not all Citizens United does. It also acts like a noose for the middle class. It kills two birds with one stone: American democracy and economic equality.

Here’s how it works to off the middle, while funding corporations and promoting the interests of the rich.

Suppose you’re a candidate who represents the interests of the middle class. Let’s say your initials are BO, which also stands for “body odor.” That’s appropriate, because the rich folks’ propaganda machine, financed by Citizens United, is going to say you stink.

Now lets say your opponents’ initials are MR. They also stand for “Mister.” That’s how he and his supporters will expect us economic surfs to address him after the rich have gobbled up all wealth and control all the good jobs that aren’t in China or the rest of the developing world. We won’t have to have our hats in our hands because we won’t have hats. We’ll have hoodies.

As MR tries to beat you in a supposedly free election, he’ll protest that he, too, is foursquare for the middle class. He’ll say he “knows what it takes” to make it prosper again. [1 and 2] But his numbers won’t add up, and he won’t offer any details. And, of course, he’ll protest too much.

The well-informed won’t buy it for a New York microsecond. They'll know whom MR is really for. How? They’ll just follow the money: the torrents of millions from plutocrats flowing into MR’s campaign coffers.

But a certain proportion of uninformed and “independent” voters will buy MR’s line, because he’s such a clever and convincing salesman. [1 and 2] After all, he cut his salesman’s teeth while still young, trying to sell the Book of Mormon to Catholics in France. If you can do that, selling “trickle-down” to gullible Americans is easy.

People dumb enough to buy trickle-down on its substantive merits are very few. MR and the super-rich will need more voters to win. That’s where the noose comes in.

You know how a noose works, right? It uses the victim’s own weight to strangle him. The more he struggles, the more it tightens. It’s diabolical genius.

Citizens United works just the same way. You can see it working right now. Here’s how.

Television and Web video are powerful media. For propagandists and demagogues, they are the best. Their images bypass our reasoning centers and go straight to the emotional centers of our brains. Unless you have a very strong rational “governor,” they can convince you with “data” that wouldn’t last a moment if analyzed rationally.

So the super-rich, who want MR to lead us, flood the airwaves and the Web with all sorts of images of disparagement and hate. (They’ve actually been doing that since you took office, but who counts?) They own the vast majority of disposable wealth in the nation, and they can out-video any opposition, let alone your hapless supporters.

But that’s not what makes Citizens United a noose. What makes it a noose is where all the money for those lying ads goes.

The only way to counter the torrent of lying ads is in kind: visceral persuasion. So your own supporters have to do the same thing. And since the middle class—those members of it who still can think—is your constituency, they have to dig deep into their own much shallower pockets to finance video ads for you.

Where does the money they donate go? The vast majority goes right into the pockets of corporate America, namely, the corporate owners of TV stations and the public-relations corporations that prepare the ads.

The plutocrats don’t mind this a bit. These owners are their own friends and cronies. Anyway, the cost of their immense donations, which seem huge to ordinary people, are pocket change to them. They are a rational investment in a friendlier future.

As for the rest of us, we dig as deep as we can, but our contributions go for two purposes. First, they enrich the media moguls, who are, by and large, members of the plutocrats’ socials class and strong supporters of MR. Second, they nurture and enrich PR folk, the professional liars who make all this possible. Isn’t that a brilliant twofer?

Now you can see how the whole thing is a noose for the middle class. The donation wars enrich MR’s supporters while impoverishing the middle class and entrenching the industry of lies that have made elections exercises in mendacity. [1, 2, 3, and 4]

Before Ronald Reagan, none of this could have happened. There was a rule called the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required media companies to give all major candidates for elective office equal time. More important, if one candidate attacked another, it required the station airing the attack to give the other candidate equal time to respond, for free.

You might have called the Fairness Doctrine an “anti-noose.” Not only did it make elections infinitely fairer. It also had the right economic incentives. Since stations had to provide free time for victims of political attacks to respond, they were reluctant to air them in the first place. The Doctrine made our private media, which largely control what we see and hear, more interested in seeing candidates tout their own plans and programs than tear their opponents down.

The Fairness Doctrine survived Supreme-Court review, in a case called Red Lion. But it met its fate in the Federal Communications Commission of Ronald Reagan, that Irish charmer with his hand so deep in our middle-class pockets. His FCC stopped enforcing it. Now Obama’s FCC has exorcised its ghost from the books.

Without much public notice at the time, Reagan’s appointees put the Fairness Doctrine on the shelf, tying the first six knots in the noose of our democracy. His GOP successors appointed justices to the Supreme Court who later would foist Citizens United upon an unsuspecting nation, tying the other seven.

Does this mean you should stop contributing? Quite the opposite: you have no choice.

This election is the last stand of American democracy. If MR wins, we will have elected the least experienced candidate in American history, if you count our general-presidents’ military experience. We will have done so on the basis of nothing more than his awesome salesmanship.

But most important, we will have done so because Citizens United allowed MR’s real supporters—the super-rich—to hypnotize us with outrageous lies, repeated endlessly over privately-owned media that we ourselves must help finance in the hope of surviving the onslaught. The lies touch every aspect of our political worldview: our views of BO and recent history, the meaning of “socialism”, how our own economy works, and and how health-insurance works.

It’s all so devilishly clever, and so ominous. But we have no choice. The gallows stand is not entirely out of our reach. If we can just get our foot on it, we might loosen the noose and elect BO.

If not, we can tell Ben Franklin’s ghost that we’ve lost our Republic. And we can prepare to live in an authoritarian nation run by unseen hands that care only for themselves and their greedy peers.

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