“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Location: Columbus, OH, United States

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Public Campaigns on the Public Airwaves

I just ran across the Our Democracy Our Airwaves Campaign website. The bulk of the enormous and ever-growing amount of money needed to run a successful election campaign in this country (the U.S.) is devoted to television commercials. But the TV spectrum belongs to the public and is licensed to broadcasters by the FCC. Why not make it a condition of the license that they must provide designated amounts of free airtime to candidates for public office? This wouldn't solve everything, but at least in the short term it would reduce the amounts of money needed for political campaigns by orders of magnitude. That would go a long way toward levelling the playing field and bring us much closer to democratic ideals.

Despite their negative image, I think there are many politicians who don't enjoy having to spend so much time fundraising and would rather have more time for public service; more significantly, I think there are many corporations who would rather not have to spend so much money on campaign contributions and would rather spend it on better serving their customers. There's only one player that benefits from the situation as it stands: the broadcast media. See the Columbia Journalism Review article Media Money for a review of how lobbying by media corporations and their trade associations quashed this reform, which Bill Clinton had proposed in 1998.

But even if we take cynicism to the extreme, media money should not have been able to quash this reform. It's not plausible that the media has more money than all the other corporate interests put together. If those other corporate interests spent their money lobbying for this reform, then even in the most cynical view, it would have gone through. This would reduce their costs for all their future political lobbying by large factors, which would be an enormous net gain for them. If we also assume as above that politicians would rather decrease the size of campaign budgets (an assumption requiring a bit less cynicism), then the other corporate interests would not even have to match the media lobby in order to carry through the reform.

So why then did this happen? I can think of a few reasons:


  1. No individual politician wants to be the one to offend the media lobby.


  2. Incumbents fear that this would significantly erode their advantage.


  3. Neither the corporate interests nor the politicians are used to thinking at this strategic level. They may be very adept at the game of campaign contributions, but the considerations above require thinking about the meta-game: the possibility of changing the rules of the game. They're too caught up in the game as it's played now. Thus the corporate interests and the politicians perceive this as a media issue and not as an issue affecting each of them.



Regarding the first point, if we look at what actually happened, term-limited Bill Clinton had already stepped forward as the one to take this risk. Legislators then actively stepped forward to quash the FCC. If they had just passively let it go through, none of them could have been singled out for blame. So this alone is insufficient to explain it. Regarding the second point, incumbents had an advantage even before the advent of radio and TV. They know the corporate lobbyists personally, and the corporate interests see them as known quantities with predictable behavior. So this would also be insufficient to stop the reform, if the weight of all the other corporate interests were behind it.

That leaves the third point. Thus, out of this exercise in extreme cynicism comes a ray of hope for our republic: if the parties concerned can simply be brought to see what's in their own self-interest, we can bring about this change, and begin a return to the democratic ideal of candidates competing freely in the marketplace of ideas to represent the voters' viewpoints.

Update February 25th, 2016: So much has changed since I wrote this post, it almost seems quaint.  Yet what David Frum wrote yesterday in The Atlantic reminds me a bit of my thinking in that long ago era:

Like all human beings, multimillionaires have finite funds and infinite possibilities to expend those funds. Some must regard the local hospital or the homeless shelter or the city opera or their alma mater as more deserving causes than the ambitions of this politician or that. But the politician can retaliate, and the hospital, the homeless shelter, the opera, and the alma mater cannot. So it’s the politician who shoves his or her way to the head of the giving queue.

But having shoved his or her way forward, how much does the politician truly benefit from the super-PAC system? The politician’s natural interest is to spend as little as possible on consultants’ fees. That’s not in the consultants’ interest, obviously. The effect of the super PAC system is to put the consultants, not the politicians, in charge of the largest pools of political money—and then to wrap those consultants’ takings in layer upon layer of non-transparency and non-accountability.

1 Comments:

Blogger Cubicle said...

"This wouldn't solve everything, but at least in the short term it would reduce the amounts of money needed for political campaigns by orders of magnitude. That would go a long way toward levelling the playing field and bring us much closer to democratic ideals."

no it would put the tv stations out of business or rasie the price of advertising, therefore rasing the cost of goods and services.

though the tv is a owned by the public, it is is filled with private enterprise

5:54 PM  

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