Political campaigns keep getting uglier

Published 10:13 am Friday, October 19, 2012

Column: Notes From Home


I reach into the mailbox, hoping, hoping it will be a good day, but no, once more the words and pictures scream at me.

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“He’s our anti-tax hero!” and “She’s a big-spending liberal!”

Disbelief mixed with nausea is the only reaction possible as I reach out to open the front door, only to recoil as I see what’s been stuffed onto the doorknob.

“She believes in fairness and justice!” and “He’s sold his soul to the corporations!”

All sides are guilty of exaggerations and selective revelation of the real stories.

Like many other residents of southern Minnesota who are part of the Legislative district currently represented by Rep. Rich Murray, I have been getting a lot of fliers in the mail or attached to the front door. Some are actually from Murray’s or Shannon Savick’s campaigns. Many of them, however, appear “on behalf” of Murray or Savick, with pictures and text praising one of the two politicians on one side and attacking the opponent on the other.

No surprise that I am weary of the negativity. No surprise either that I haven’t started a collection; most of the fliers and brochures go right from the mailbox (or doorknob) into the garbage can. But weariness on the part of voters doesn’t appear to register with those responsible for these campaign materials.

The people planning and sustaining political campaigns know that going negative works. And because of the way our campaign laws and regulations are set up, those responsible for the negativity often don’t work for the official campaigns. They don’t need to tell us who gives them money, if it’s a campaign for Congress or the presidency. Even the candidates themselves aren’t able to do anything to influence the flow of mailings.

As bad as it is here, for those living in the 6th and 8th Congressional Districts, the situation is even uglier. The reason? According to some politicians and a majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, corporate entities — multinational manufacturers, financial conglomerates, non-profit “educational” organizations and labor unions — are all legally “people,” with the same rights to speech as biological people, and are therefore free to spend as much as they can afford to support their preferred candidates.

The only stipulation that governs their spending is that they can’t just give limitless amounts of cash to candidates directly. They have to spend those dollars on their own activities. And so far, these corporate entities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the 2012 election, at state and national levels, buying a plethora of advertisements — mostly negative — on TV, on radio, via email, via websites and in the mail.

This is a problem for American democracy. The risk here goes beyond just the appearance that the election is being bought. It could mean the election actually is being bought through the overwhelming influence all that money enables. Whoever has the most money will be able to speak loudest, splattering the candidates they want to block with so much sh . . . mud, that the ones they support will appear as candles in the dark — even if the glow really comes from their demon-possessed souls.

On the other hand, what if the millions of dollars are spent on more positive messages? Unlimited cash from corporate entities will easily swamp the airwaves (and mailboxes and doorknobs) with words and images of their own candidates. If those entities are “people” then they are also Goliaths, with access to resources no biological person has.

Here’s a troubling question: What’s the real difference between a campaign run by corporate entities (who’ve bought up all the available air time and billboards) and political campaigns in countries like Venezuela or Russia, with the government and its oligarchs running all the media, and the only parties allowed access are the ones that support the government’s policies? Not much that I can see.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.