Sen. Mark Begich is worried about Joe Miller and “the entire national right-wing attack machine.” Those are words he used in a recent letter soliciting funds for his 2014 reelection bid. Instead of starting with his positions on current issues and a list of his accomplishments, Begich devoted the first dozen sentences of the letter to how his opposition is preparing to take him down. But the underlying message in this uninspiring introduction is how the commercialization of our society is corrupting our democratic process.
As a Democrat in a Republican leaning state, Begich knows he’ll likely be the underdog in the race to retain his U.S. Senate seat. What will make his battle more difficult, he says, is that the GOP will be “spending millions of Washington dollars to distort [his] record and promote Joe Miller.” It’s a scenario he should be partly familiar with because that’s how the Democrats helped him four years ago while the FBI was investigating possible corruption by the late Sen. Ted Stevens. And just as he claims the GOP at the national level doesn’t “care about what’s important to Alaskans,” the D.C. Democrats back then didn’t either.
What will be different in his 2014 race is how campaign money will come into the state from undisclosed sources. That’s because the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case equated political contributions with free speech. The transparency problem created by the ruling could have been corrected before the election that year. Indeed, the Supreme Court actually advised Congress to pass new legislation that would have required sufficient disclosure so the voting public could determine which candidates might wind up beholden to special interests. But Senate Republicans defeated such a bill crafted by Democrats in 2010 and more recently shot down a similar proposal.
Begich may be sounding early alarm bells because Alaskans really won’t see much of the effect of Citizens United in this year’s national elections. But around the rest of the country, billionaires, large corporations and every other well financed special interest group are prepared to spend enormous sums of money to influence the outcome of other races. And while political analysts believe Republicans will benefit most from the lack of transparency in campaign spending, blaming them for the deterioration of our democratic process is too easy. There are other entities who for decades have been contributing of demise of our electoral politics.
Let’s start with the advertising industry. They’re drooling at the prospect of revenue from record breaking spending this year. It would be one thing if they were hired to honestly portray a candidate’s record and position on the issues. But the vast majority of their television and radio ads will be totally void of substance. Worse yet, the most effective ones are often those that slyly distort the truth. In other words, the most sought after advertisers are those who can legally deceive most of the people most of the time. New York Times columnist David Brooks put it this way — “the ad-makers now take dishonesty as a mark of their professional toughness.”
Still we have to ask ourselves how they’ve become so skilled at such an ugly trade. For one, our love of competitive capitalism has fostered the deterioration of professional decency that Brooks describes. There is always somebody out there willing to go further beyond the line between truth and deception. And they’ve been handsomely rewarded while leading much of the industry to the bottom of an ethical swamp.
However, the root of the problem isn’t related to politics. The advertisers learned long ago that truth and substance aren’t prerequisites for making effective television and radio commercials to promote many thousands of consumer products and services for sale on the open market. It’s where they make most of their money while practicing deceiving the American public.
Begich, Miller, and this year’s presidential candidates are politicians whose first objective is to win votes. And they’ve seen how easily the shopper’s mind is manipulated by ads void of substance and truth. So if we want elections where we can gauge the candidates by their honesty and integrity, then we’ve got to stop playing the everyday fool for the American advertising industry.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.