Have super PACs ruined the election?

Wealthy donors want more than victory in November. They're trying to reshape how we view government

By Alan Smith
Published August 28, 2012 10:34PM (EDT)
Karl Rove            (AP/Tony Gutierrez)
Karl Rove (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

This originally appeared on Next New Deal.

We’ve all seen the numbers; we know Super PAC politics is a slow-motion disaster unfolding before our eyes, and that a handful of rich people have the ability to dramatically swing elections. But beyond influencing individual races and shifting the way national campaigns must be run, Super PACs and the messages they are promoting may have a dramatic long-term effect on how we as a society view our government.

Next New Deal Super PAC spending has already hit $200 million this cycle, and with the big players reporting plenty in their reserves, the top of this mountain of cash is not yet in sight. We’re not talking about an even layer of money covering the political landscape, either. This money is going to support conservative causes at a disproportionately high rate. Not only does Open Secrets identify three-quarters of the Super PAC funds as being raised and spent by conservative groups, but ProPublica has tracked media buys and reported that “conservative social-welfare groups” have already spent some $70 million on television ads, compared to $1.6 million spent by liberal groups.

Because so much of this cash is hard to track, we don’t know exactly where dollars are going, but those estimates still paint a clear image of a democracy radically remaking itself. David Axelrod summed up the blight nicely (even accounting for the sour grapes that come from being on the wrong side of the ledger) in a recent New Yorker article:

If your party serves the powerful and well-funded interests, and there’s no limit to what you can spend, you have a permanent, structural advantage. We’re averaging fifty-dollar checks in our campaign, and trying to ward off these seven- or even eight-figure checks on the other side. That disparity is pretty striking, and so are the implications. In many ways, we’re back in the Gilded Age. We have robber barons buying the government.

It’s been clear from the beginning that many on the right have been tepid about Mitt Romney as a candidate. I would argue that this ambivalence shows up in donors’ spending habits as well: when it comes to the actual campaign apparatus, President Obama is running sizably ahead of Romney in fundraising. This raises an interesting question: legal limits aside, what other reasons do big-ticket donors have to avoid going straight to the party apparatus? Super PACS give these donors a way to swing elections, but more importantly, they provide a way to control their messaging directly in ways that donating to Romney’s camp would not. Lost in the election-focused discussion of ground game versus ad game is the potential long-term result of the one-sided messaging that is currently blaring from our television sets and computer screens.

Through funding these Super PACs, 30 or so billionaires are running a nation-wide advertising campaign. While the focus is on attacking Obama, this brain trust is playing a simultaneous long game. The reality of issue advertising is that there are subliminal long-term effects on the audience and their associations with political stances and phrases. That’s how advertising works with Lexus or Gatorade, and that’s how it is working here. Sure, it helps Mitt Romney in November if “Obama” is associated with “bureaucracy” and “taxes” and “waste,” but what about the fact that the ads are also connecting “government” with “bureaucracy,” “tax burden,” and “waste,” independent of the candidate?

Check out this ad, brought to you by Americans for Prosperity, one of many targeting a specific candidate in a swing state:



The point of the ad is clear: Donnelly, and through him “sitting government,” are bureaucratic spenders, and they sure don’t have your best interest at heart. It's not a new message. But the scope of these targeted issue ads is new. Even if this is not a calculated right-wing attempt at moving the needle on how citizens view the role of government, that will surely be a side effect.

Regardless of whether you favor Democrats or Republicans, the larger concern is with the way we conduct democracy in this country. The root problem here is that a small cabal of wealthy people can fundamentally affect our view of government and how it functions. This new front in the war of ideas will not end with a single battle in November; Super PACs are a giant new tool designed to drive a wedge between the people and their government even more effectively than the right’s “welfare queen” rhetoric of yesteryear. Their messaging makes the case that government is something foreign, alien, and other. On the other side, there are no ads making the case for Medicare, public education, or government as a vehicle for social change.

One could make the argument that Super PAC supporters see attacking the roots of government as a lucky side benefit to helping the Romney campaign, but that seems naïve. And considering the past 30 years of intentional Frank Luntz-style messaging from the right, I find it impossible to believe that this barrage is merely a philosophical case for greater “freedom.” Rather, it is a calculated attempt to further erode Americans’ sense of government as a positive actor and, with that, the chance for a publicly held good in our society. While it is true that our relationship with government is a complex and evolving one, it must not be defined by such a black-and-white campaign against government in all forms.

Alan Smith

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Karl Rove Mitt Romney Next New Deal Republican Party Super Pac