Attack Campaigns Debase Our Democracy

It's not often that our Montana elections make national news two days running, first in a New York Times editorial, then in a PBS Frontline feature. The thrust? That secret outside money, perhaps illegally, is trying to buy our elections. But, legal or not, something else is involved: an assault on citizens' confidence in our system of elections and in democracy itself.

I travel across Montana to produce Home Ground radio, and meet a lot of people -- Republicans, Democrats, and independents, progressives and libertarians, urban and rural. All agree: These attack ad campaigns are a disgrace to our state and degrading our democracy.

Last week I received an email from a tough businessman. "These ads make me sick at heart," he wrote. "I am not going to vote. And I don't know if I will again."

How did we reach this point? The pieces of the answer add up to this: Moral bankruptcy of the hired guns who run today's campaigns, those who put up the big money and expect a return, and the candidates who look the other way, saying, "I have nothing to do with those 'independent campaign committee' ads." Plus the "independent committees" -- staff and secret donors: It took some doing, but a new low in this debased form of political slander has been reached by The American Tradition Partnership, which has mailed a fraudulent "newspaper" featuring a line up of photos, one of our gubernatorial candidates next to three alleged child molesters. (Ironically, their ad ran on the New York Times daily edition website the day after the editorial condemning ATP's practices.) The only "American Tradition" these people are engaged in is secretly funded, legal slander.

What we are seeing is the "win at all costs" mindset -- the same as cutthroat business practices, extortionist, hardball litigation, and athletes using dope. The trouble is that this is not a game: These selfish interests are gutting our democracy, alienating our citizens from the Founders vision of participatory governance. And the truth is, the people who profit from these ads don't care.

Some facts: In the 2010 federal elections, more than $3 billion was spent. More than 65 percent of that came from ¼ of one-percent of the American people.

The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined -- the highest concentration since the 1920s.

These facts are related: People "investing" in campaigns expect -- and get -- huge financial pay-offs from the policies enacted by those elected to office. So the pharmaceutical industry "invests" in candidates who promise to bar Medicare from negotiating drug prices. Elected to Congress, they do just that, at a cost of roughly $20 billion a year to the American taxpayers. Another example: Far lower "capital gains" tax rates are put into law for people who earn money from investments, rather than from work. Around $100 billion more. And corporate loopholes. So General Electric earns more than $14 billion in profits in 2010, and not only pays zero federal income tax, but claims a $3.2 billion tax credit.

These big-money interests and their hired guns are doing what they are "supposed to do" -- making investments that pay off in bigger profits, and more wealth. It's a straight commercial transaction. They don't care that the Founders gambled all they had to create our Constitution -- "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, assure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty."

The Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United decision, enabling unions and multi-national corporations to contribute to electioneering, simply adds an exclamation point to this perversion of our democracy.

In looking for culprits, each of us needs to take a long look in the mirror. As the campaign director for a Montana governor said to me, "People say they hate attack ads, but the fact is they work. They change votes."

Why do they work?? Because we Americans now have "higher" priorities than citizenship, and hold "politics" in contempt. We don't pay attention to what is really going on, and thus are vulnerable to manipulation by attack ads that target our dislikes and fears. Just like commercial advertising, it's a refined "science" aimed at pushing our emotional buttons.

So, what can we do? First, we must accept the responsibility of informed citizenship bequeathed by the Founders. Meaning we must spend as much time engaged in political reading, thinking and talking with family, friends and neighbors as we do sitting on our backsides watching "entertainment." Informed citizens are tough to manipulate.

Second, we need to change the rules governing elections. That requires a new Supreme Court or an amendment to our Constitution. Let's use what works in other democracies -- time limits on campaigns, bans on corporate/union funding, tough limits on private contributions, plus public-funding to level the playing field for a genuinely free "marketplace of ideas." Once and for all, we need to take down the "For Sale" sign on our democracy.

If we fail to do these things we will destroy our representative form of government, betray the Founders' vision and sacrifice, and equally tragically, deprive our grandchildren of their national and natural heritage: engaged citizen of the American Republic.

Brian Kahn hosts HOME GROUND radio. He is author of REAL COMMON SENSE: Using Our Founding Values to Reclaim our Nation for the 99%, and winner of the Montana Governor's Award for the humanities. He lives in Helena, Montana.