There are two ways to campaign for office: hire a consultant or do it yourself.
Consultants cost money; lots of it. They earn this money by raising money. Like lawyers who work on contingency, campaign consultants take home a piece of the money action that the campaign generates. They also run high-dollar, glitzy campaigns that are long on smears, slogans and invective-filled one-liners, all designed to pound home the party line while hiding the actual party agenda.
Candidates who are recruited by political parties get saddled up with a party-approved consultant early on. The candidate signs a contract with the consultant and that ends their contribution to the thinking end of the campaign process. From then on, their job is to meet voters and repeat what they’ve been told to say.
The weird part is that we wonder why they “betray” us once they’re in office. They don’t betray anybody. We just misunderstand. In truth, these party loyalists who ignore the needs of their constituents to line the pockets of the people who paid for their campaigns are keeping their word. This is what they were recruited and created to do.
The other way to campaign, do it yourself, has mostly passed from fashion. A few dinosaurs like me cling to it and manage to get elected, but we’re definitely old school, remnants of an almost forgotten past. Do it yourselfers have to think their way through a campaign. They’ve got to raise their own campaign funds, explain themselves to the voters, design their own media and decide for themselves what they believe.
The best thing about do-it-yourself campaigns is that they are a kind of natural selection process. Genuine idiots can’t get themselves elected in a competitive do-it-yourself campaign. They just don’t have the brains, the tactical sense or the communication skills to become elected officials.
Old-style do-it-yourself campaigns didn’t necessarily produce a bi-annual crop of Washingtons and Lincolns. Those campaigns could be heavy on the schlock and name recognition, light on the issues. Here in Oklahoma, we elected candidates to office named Cowboy Pink Williams and Happy Camp. Will Rogers ran for office decades after the well-known humorist was laid in his grave, and Wilbur Wright managed to get elected to statewide office and then almost impeached, presumably because voters thought he invented the airplane.
None of these colorful candidates would have gotten through in today’s big-money climate. They were elected simply because uninformed voters picked a name on the ballot that sounded familiar. The Cowboy Pinks won when the competition was light.
In a rough and tumble do-it-yourself campaign, and there were lots of them, the best candidate usually won. By best I mean the candidate who could think on his or her feet, learn from mistakes and think tactically under pressure. That doesn’t mean they were the nicest, but in a surprisingly effective way, these races usually elected people who had what it takes to govern.
Money-based consultant-run campaigns, on the other hand, eliminate election based on familiar names by the simple expedient of dumping so much money and advertising on the race that voters become aware that this Wilbur Wright didn’t invent anything. Unfortunately, the money obscures the candidate just as effectively as voter indifference ever could have, and it does it in a far more dangerous way. The old way put a sprinkling of buffoons in office with every passing election. But they weren’t puppets, and they did care about this country. Their damage was limited to their particular office and their personal lack of talent.
Today, instead of a familiar name, we elect a familiar face. The difference is that, while the Cowboy Pinks decided to run and got elected on their own, today’s familiar faces were recruited and are controlled by outside forces. We elect people on the basis of celebrity and how they make us feel in ads that are so dishonest they could never rise to the level of schlock. We don’t know these people. Our votes aren’t any more informed than they were in the days of Cowboy Pink and Happy Camp. They are just more maliciously manipulated.
We are encouraged by advertising to imagine candidates in a certain way that usually has no relation to the people they are. It’s a skillful sort of propaganda that uses advertising that is heavy on long-shots of the candidate walking across the prairie while a lone trumpet plays soulfully and an actor with a resonant voice tells us that the candidate is a series of adjectives that add up to exactly nothing. We come away from these ads, thinking we’ve been told something when in fact all that’s happened is that we’ve been induced into feeling something. We take this feeling and attach it to the candidate. In this way, today’s political advertising induces us to create the candidate in our own minds and then vote for whatever we imagine him or her to be.
These ads, combined with orchestrated internet smears and other propaganda designed to enrage and terrify us to the point that we can’t think, lead us to vote the way the consultant wants. We think we’re voting for a candidate. We’re actually voting for a trumpet solo.
The Cowboy Pinks, Happy Camps and Wilbur Wrights more or less blundered into office, then bumbled around once they got there. There’s nothing blundering or bumbling about the verbal blood baths we call campaigns today. It takes a lot of talent to manipulate the electorate and there’s no lack of it in these consultant-driven races. But this talent is not directed toward representing the people or the good of the country. It’s focused on servicing the needs of the people who paid for the consultants, advertising, polls and think tanks who created this campaign engine in the first place.
Stop and think for a minute. Why should it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get elected to an Oklahoma House seat that pays $38,400 in salary and represents around 35,000 people? Who would invest that kind of money in something with such a minuscule return?
The answer is that the return is not minuscule; at least not for the money men behind the scenes. They’re not making an investment. They’re certainly not “supporting” a candidate. They’re buying. And what they are buying is control of our government. In exchange for a few hundred thousand dollars they get control of a vote on a budget that runs into the billions; on other votes on bond issues that will put hundreds of millions of dollars through their companies; on tax breaks, government give aways and competitive advantages that, over time, become an endless river of government money.
Why would corporations in Florida and New York, Texas and Mexico care about who represents a single senate or house district in Gotebo Oklahoma? Because money is fluid; it flows from one place to the other. That, and because these legislative seats are the seed corn for bigger crops. They supply the candidates when it’s time to re-load at the national level, where the money goes from huge to unimaginable.
President Obama is an example. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1997, ran for and was elected to the United States Senate in 2004, and then four years later, to President of the United States. His example is extreme, but it is of a type that is re-played continuously all over the nation. State legislatures are the seedbed of national politics. This process of selecting/grooming/electing candidates who will act as operatives for money interests now and into the future is what the two political parties actually do. It is, as I said in Part 1, about power.
Money spent to gain control of the taxing/regulating/treaty-making/military-sending/contract-giving/appropriating power of government is smart money. It is also destructive, amoral, uncaring money. It harms our country. It endangers our democracy. It threatens our future as a great nation and a free people.
It’s a simple equation: High Dollar Campaigns = Government of the Puppet People