Monday, January 23, 2012

What If Citizens United Isn't Really the Problem?

Consequences, Symptoms and Causes

The difference between the "consequences, symptoms and causes" can become quite blurred when sought from a reactionary baseline. We can be so engrossed in "reacting" that important, "bigger picture" issues slip by us. For one thing, there is the matter of time.  Generally, time must pass between the initiation of causes and the resulting consequences -- especially when social or cultural issues are hosting the developments.

As for "symptoms," although often quite material, perhaps the most notable quality of symptoms is that they are the precursors of the actual consequences.  While very durable consequences are maturing in the background, the symptoms are the "canaries in the coal mine" which notify us that things are changing.

MeanMesa thought that we might need this short, hyper-academic, conceptual  interlude to set the foundation for the arguments which follow in this posting.

It's actually quite easy to become reactionary when considering the Citizens United ruling, its consequences, its symptoms and its causes, but let's take the effort to transcend even that, more or less, all encompassing viewpoint.  MeanMesa thinks that the most interesting truth of the matter resides in the arena which hosts Citizen United, that is, the environment which serves to lend weight to its consequences, symptoms and causes.

If the thing were no more than carelessly abandoned debris left on some deserted New Mexico mesa somewhere, doing nothing but catching an occasional tumble weed, its grave threat to American democracy would be nothing more than a theory.  

Citizens United -- as a "Symptom"
It started in our public schools.

Now, we have to look at precisely the advantage that Citizens United has delivered into the hands of those rich enough to utilize the ruling.  The first thing which comes to mind is the "discovered legality" of the process of unlimited spending to manipulate the political process.  Sure, there are a few rules, but toothless, unenforceable ones -- rules perhaps best described as "voluntary disciplines" which were made to sound workably given the strong, patriotic ideals and honor of those likely to test them.

Most Americans used to learn how to run our government. (image source)

However, all this stuff amounts to a pile of symptoms.  Yes, these are the immediate injuries the democracy faces, but a more sinister culprit lurks deeper down -- in the foundation of exactly why Citizens United works.

Remember.  It wouldn't matter if it didn't work.  But, it does.
Stripped of all the decision's judicial outrages, Citizens United has everything to do with education.  There is a largely unexamined "body of knowledge" in the mind of an American voter as he makes his way to the polls.  Further, that "body of knowledge" has a very shadowy definition and an even more shadowy set of sources.

In past days, one important source of that "body of knowledge" was the education which provided the essential literacy of the nation.  Way back then, every student in a US public school studied the mechanism of American democracy in a civics class and accumulated some sort of knowledgeable world view from the common history lessons taught in every school named after a President from Vermont to Alabama.

Another traditional source of that "body of knowledge" was provided by actual media reporting.  Radio stations, television stations and news papers caused plenty of mischievous bias in those days, but they competed with each other -- they competed with each other for credibility and objectivity.  And that competition for a reputation of "truth telling" enjoyed eager consumers.

Does the name "Walter Cronkite" ring a bell? 

A "Body of Knowledge" and an "Informed Electorate"
All this has something to do with the US Constitution.

By the time elections rolled around, a huge part of the "body of knowledge" accompanying voters as they went to the polls originated in either public school education or the media's reporting or both.  Of course, the "other part" of that "body of knowledge" came from the politicians.  The exact ratio of how much came from the first source and how much came from the second source is anybody's guess but, we can still see the results of those choices in elections.

In MeanMesa's 70 trips around the sun, precisely this serves as an example of the now hardly known requirement to operate our government called "an informed electorate."  The founders considered the idea important for the democracy, and they referred to the concept often in our founding papers.  They intended for the "informed electorate" to make informed choices in our democratic elections.

It's time for an example.  

Walking around in today's United States, it's relatively easy to find a voter who is blankly terrified with the current combination of Iranian belligerence coupled with Obama's proposed defense spending cuts.  The point made here is not an opinion on the issues involved in the argument, but with the "body of knowledge" that voter is "using" to make his very questionable decision at the polls.

The ratio between information sources mentioned above has changed.  In fact, even the sources have changed.  Our voter has been convinced that he dare not lend any particular credibility to media reporting, and he has never been exposed to enough history or civics to pique his curiosity about what he "knows."

So, where is our voter getting the information he will need to be part of an "informed electorate?"  Now, we are finally arriving at the "prize on the table" which has inspired so many billionaires to "indulge themselves" with the new legalities made possible by Citizens United.

The stakes are high -- sky high.

Even Cheaper Than "Bread and Circuses"
A thousand watt station versus a thousand loaf bakery

The Roman plutocrats of the Imperial period had to fork over some major cash to sway the electorate of the day.  Those old Romans were a bit pickier than modern Americans.  The more modern crowd will cave in quickly with just a few, well engineered, incendiary talking points.  However, the point remains the same.

Pompeii - distribution of Roman bread.

Just as the oligarchs' demariae flowed in ancient Rome, modern cash will still purchase what is needed to win elections now.  The difference is that the old Romans literally bought votes with their gifts while the modern oligarchs spend money to very carefully manufacture largely unexamined "mind sets" which can be trusted to behave properly in the voting booths.

"Mind sets?"  Yes, "mind sets" is a generous, collective term describing many little pieces and bits of "motivators" which are patiently and relentless implanted, day after day, election season or not, into the consciousness of the willing.  Citizens United money is now free to do precisely this -- without limit.  The scope of the wealth of those providing the cash for such endeavors is fundamentally incomprehensible to those who consume the product.

Further, although the Citizens United ruling was about a film criticising Clinton, the money need not always take such an identifiable form.  30 and 60 second toxic commercials are favorite media purchases -- by the hundreds.  Extremely mediocre books are written then purchased by such money for free distribution as the "sales" elevate them to "best seller" status and fame.

The Clinton film was an example of a  "big piece."  The wars in the election booths will be won by an immense myriad of "small pieces."  Further, the broadcast of these "smaller pieces" is cheaper, faster and more efficient than anything the Romans dreamed of accomplishing with their loaves and circus tickets.  Considered as a whole, Citizens United has turned over the task of educating the "informed electorate" to the highest bidder.

In earlier days, any political platform had an "unmanageable ally" in the settled history of any issue.  Voters had learned about such things in public school.  They might be swayed by political rhetoric during a campaign, but what was being "swayed" amounted to persuasive adjustments to mere details of knowledge attached to the much larger bodies they had learned about in school.

Did You Notice
that Politics Were Getting "Jumpy Wild?"

Further, the "distance issues could be swayed" -- the "swaying" aspect of campaigns -- was much smaller.  Political discourse was much more centered on tangible plans compared to the modern focus on ideology -- along with some the lingering, darker sides of American opinion.  For example, the race baiting and arrogant classicism of modern politics would have been unthinkable during the Eisenhower campaign.  The result was discourse much more attuned to the challenges and opportunities which were material and "on the table" -- the plans and promises of a typical campaign by either party.

To make Citizens United worth anything, the vacuum left by a failed public education system had to be in place first.  To an "informed electorate" many of the incendiary gambits which are quite saleable today would have amounted to tasteless sarcasm.  Few millionaires or billionaires would have reached into their pockets to publicize such ineffective material.

In 21st Century America there is no longer even a "comparable memory" of a functioning media.  Not only has aggressive, competitive reporting ceased long ago, the contaminated "news" presentations no longer even fear being called editorial, an indictment which would have incited terror on the city desks of the 50's and 60's.  The vacuum of objectivity which is the predictable result of such a pervasive failure might have caused market corrections back when networks competed with each other for reporting objectivity.

Now, however, that vacuum can be very efficiently filled by decidedly commercial sources -- examples of which abound as we review the media purchases of the Citizens United crowd.  "Commercial?"  Yes.  Citizens United media investments are all part of a marketing scheme, directed by specific goals of influence on voter turn out and all with an aim which includes profit somewhere down along the line -- very often in the redirection of tax money or other legislated advantages.

Modern politicians are not only generously sponsored by those whose interests they intend to serve when elected, they have become actual surrogates for those interests.  The protection offered by Citizens United money is paid for --  compensated by legislative actions which could not have previously survived the eye of an "informed electorate."  

One thing leads to another.  Stupidity turns into cash.

Evidence of the educational vacuum has really been front and center in the conduct and statements of candidates in this Republican Primary.  For example, one famous gaff of then front runner Bachmann placed Paul Revere's route in New Hampshire.

An early map of the 2012 New Hampshire Primary (image source)
However, of note here, is that this ridiculous gaff didn't lower Ms. Bachmann's approval ratings among Republican Primary voters.  Still think that an "educational vacuum" is a mere exaggeration?

Some Americans think that the only proper response to Citizens United is to strike back, that is,  do to the oligarchs what they tried to do to us.  

This won't work.  

So long as the "prize" remains on the table, either Citizens United or something similar will continue to operate.  The only way to drive a stake through the heart of this monstrosity is to remove the "prize."  Should the American electorate become, once again, somewhat informed, Citizens United will die the death it deserves, a slow, confounding demise driven home first by a dwindling credibility, then finally, by a profound lack of interest.

It turns out that there is very little difference between uninformed and uninterested.

Finally, a short note from MeanMesa.

Short Current Essays 
Never Intended To Report the "News"
It's all opinion.

Oh sure, MeanMesa has -- very occasionally -- scooped news stories as they were approaching.  In the first days of the Tunisian uprising, Short Current Essays predicted that the Arab Spring was poised to roam far and wide through the Middle East. [January, 2011: Over Estimating the Distance to Tunis ] When President Obama shuffled Panetta, Patraeus and Gates, MeanMesa predicted a very substantial cut to US DOD "defense spending."  [April, 2011: Part 1: The Most Serious Military Campaign in US History and, May, 2011: Part 2: The Most Serious Military Campaign in US History ]

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