The End of American Democracy – as Some Pundits See it

corporateThe U.S. Supreme Court shocked media pundits this week when a majority of the justices decided it is unconstitutional to limit the amount of money corporations can spend to get politicians elected. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, for example, sees the decision as the beginning of the end for democracy in America.

Olbermann has lots of company in his apocalyptic view. But I think he underestimates the average Joe (and Jane).  Certainly the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution had more faith in “the people.” They figured that you and I – and the other relatively sane folks going about their daily lives – could be counted on to recognize BS when we see it, most of the time, anyway. So they decided to let everybody spout whatever sense or nonsense they want to without let or hindrance (as long as they aren’t falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater).

The Supreme Court has extended that constitutional freedom to corporations. And the decision scares pundits like Olbermann.

The pundits’ doomsday message is apparently based on the belief that everyone is for sale, everyone is gullible and everyone believes those ads they show on television. And that is the conventional wisdom. No serious American politician today would think of running for national office without hiring a team of “professionals” and accumulating a massive media budget. I think Hillary Clinton paid her campaign manager something like five million dollars to lose her the Democratic nomination for President, for example.

But “we the people” are better than that.

I concede that the PR industry has scored some notable triumphs recently – the creation of an astroturf Tea Party movement, for example. But the Tea Party phenomenon was due in part to luck; the professionals stumbled on an existing groundswell of popular discontent, and all they had to do was feed it money and “talking points.”

But that doesn’t mean that PR professionals and advertising copy writers can manipulate the public consciousness at will and convince us to elect a pack of corporate stooges against our best interests.

I, for one, am not usually convinced by TV commercials. I don’t believe that some wonder drug will bring back my youth or that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents the health insurance interests of small business owners, regardless of what the charlatans say in their TV commercials.

By now, I am sure most people take television commercials with more than a grain or two of salt.

chiles2I agree that the Supreme Court decision was biased; it was obviously intended to give the Republicans a huge advantage in November and in future elections. After announcing the decision, Chief Justice Roberts couldn’t stop himself from grinning like the cat that ate the canary. And, in the short term, the decision is certainly bad news for “the people.” But maybe not in the long term.

You might not remember Walkin’ Lawton. But we here in Lakeland, Florida, aren’t likely to forget him. Lawton Chiles (photo at right) was a local man who became quite famous. He got himself elected as a senator and later as the governor of the state. And the way he did it made history.

chilesHere’s a passage from the Wikipedia entry about Walkin’ Lawton:

In 1970, Chiles decided to run for a seat in the United States Senate. At the time, despite his 12 years in the state legislature, he was largely unknown outside his Lakeland-based district. To generate some media coverage across the state, Chiles embarked upon a 1,003-mile, 91-day walk across Florida from Pensacola to Key West. The walk earned him the recognition he sought, as well as the nickname that would follow him throughout his political career– “Walkin’ Lawton”. In his journal Chiles wrote that sometimes he walked alone, while other times he met ordinary Floridians along the way. In later years, Chiles would recall the walk allowed him to see Florida’s natural beauty, as well as the state’s problems, with fresh eyes. After the walk, Chiles was elected easily. 

No five-million-dollar “professional” managing his campaign… No multimillion-dollar advertising budget… No huge contributions from special interests… Just a little imagination and a lot of shoe leather.

I am sure you can think of other examples where politicians got elected without a bunch of PR hotshots, advertising copywriters and other political “professionals.”

Also, while the behavior of current members of Congress does not encourage optimism, I refuse to believe that all politicians are crooks. I don’t think Dennis Kucinich would sell his vote… Or Bernie Sanders… Or Alan Grayson… Or a lot of other politicians who are motivated by a desire to leave the world a better place than they found it, not by an appetite for money and power.

Olbermann may be right. This could indeed be the end of democracy in America. But perhaps not.  Perhaps the court’s decision will change the political culture in America for the better, ending the prevailing blind faith in PR manipulation and mass advertising. Perhaps politicians will start walking and talking to people, getting to know their constituencies, and getting known by their constituents.

Perhaps, ironically, the Supreme Court decision will return America to the kind of grassroots politics the Founding Fathers envisioned.

“We the people” will have to wait and see. Keep your fingers crossed.