Gigabytes of cyberspace have been squandered on Internet musings over the Democrats’ 2010 rout. Multiple explanations are offered: The devastated economy and high unemployment did them in; those devilishly capricious independents deserted them (again); progressive Christians who felt ignored and Medicare-anxious seniors stayed home or tilted right. But the post-election tea party would not be complete without an overloaded platter of campaign cash.
Some will point to the stupendous failure of a few big-spender candidates to flat-out buy elections—$140 million spent by Meg Whitman alone—to suggest that the voting public can still see around piles of campaign cash. But the threat posed by money to the legitimacy of our democratic process is real, despite such isolated failures as Whitman’s in the California governor’s race and Linda McMahon’s $40-million Senate run in Connecticut. More than $4 billion was spent this year and the amount of “secret money” apparently doubled. Crafting new legislation to define practical limits on cash in contemporary politics has become crucial in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Unfortunately, the major beneficiaries of the cash torrent from corporations and anonymous plutocrats will be the ones charged with reassessing the role of money and power in our democracy.
Also worth a hard look is the evolving role of media in our democracy. The activist role taken by Fox News deserves hard scrutiny. Print media are on the ropes. That is injurious to the state of American democracy, because historically it has been through print journalism that voters could find reasonably thorough analyses of political positions, agendas and the social ills confronting the nation. Now too many Americans get their daily news exclusively from Fox, which has been known to devote an entire 24-hour news cycle to nonevents or completely fictitious “news,” like reports of the purported $200 million-a-day cost of President Obama’s trip to India.
Fox News’s size, its ubiquity, partisanship and cavalier disregard for facts make it the country’s problem. What does it mean for a democracy when just about every potential candidate for the presidency from a major national party is on the payroll of one media baron? From Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin to Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, Rupert Murdoch has Republican candidates locked up in his stable of commentators. The prospect of a Silvio Berlusconi-type news mogul running the show from Washington for his own amusement and aggrandizement is unlikely, but that may be only because Mr. Murdoch was not born in the United States. Nonetheless, this powerful man is capable of pulling strings quietly from the sidelines of the nation’s political contests.
Fox News employees have raised and donated millions to Republican Party candidates and interests, dwarfing Keith Olbermann’s paltry contribution to the Democrats. News Corporation itself contributed $1 million to the Republican Governor’s Association and $1 million more to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Defending these political contributions, Mr. Murdoch said, “We believe it certainly is in the interest of the country, and the shareholders and the prosperity that there be a fair amount of change in Washington.” He later explained the donation to the R.G.A. as a direct result of his friendship with John Kasich, a one-time Fox News anchor, then a candidate to become governor of Ohio. Kasich’s gubernatorial campaign was successful.
The damaged integrity of our body politic aside, elected officials remain stuck with the task of government. Lawmakers will have to confront over the next two years an economy still teetering on the brink of failure, a vast foreclosure crisis, the federal deficit, Afghanistan on the brink, Iraq on the brink, state budgets on the brink. There are a lot of brinks out there. Unfortunately the politicians coming into Washington with electoral momentum on their side have their eyes fixed on 2012, not with the determination to pull the nation out of its quagmire, but merely to keep President Obama from re-signing his lease on the White House.
When does the politicking end and the actual work of governing begin? We cannot afford political campaigns that are perpetual-motion machines, with journalists tracking only who is in and who is out of power and not how many problems we have resolved. At some point those in power need to make mature, reasonable and executable decisions. Beginning a levelheaded review of the difficult spending and revenue options outlined recently by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform would be a signal that the nation’s elected officials are ready to take their responsibilities seriously.