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And They Call It Democracy

In an example of an article that has appeared in many if not most political publications during the past few days The New York Times reported Wednesday morning that “Democratic candidates have generally wielded a significant head-to-head financial advantage over their Republican opponents in individual competitive races.”

The story, headlined, “Democrats Retain Edge in Spending on Campaigns,” explains that this fact has been “[l]ost in all of the attention paid to the heavy spending by Republican-oriented independent groups in this year’s midterm elections.” The difference, say the reporters, is $40 million: $119 million to $79 million. What’s more, as of October 13, Democrats in House races in play collectively had about $45 million in cash on hand, compared with about $32 million for Republicans.

Reporters are misleading the public about what is the most important development in American democracy in decades by confusing the party committees with the actual story of fundraising. The normally soft-spoken liberal pundit E.J. Dionne explains that it is no so much a stretch anymore to compare our country to “a Third World nation where a small number of millionaires and billionaires spent massive sums to push the outcome in their preferred direction.”

Michael Steele’s endless antics at the Republican National Committee led the rich white folk who normally fund it to look elsewhere to park their dough. But as Jesse Zwick reports in The Washington Independent, the parties also “are being substantially outgunned this time around by a nexus of outside spending outfits that represent a variety of special interests.”

Read carefully. The Times article quoted above itself is not nearly as misleading as its headline or lede paragraph would imply. For instance, the writers do note that “Outside group spending has already far exceeded the total for the last midterm election cycle, in 2006, and is on track to surpass even what was spent by independent groups in 2008, a presidential election year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.”

It notes the enormous amounts of money being poured into close races by organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s various billionaire-backed efforts, along with too many others even to count, much less mention. (This disparity is much more sensibly explained in this Wall Street Journal article.) But one thing you can always count on in American politics is that few people actually read long New York Times stories carefully and absolutely no cable television or talk radio hosts do.

What are the numbers? The Sunlight Foundation reports that as of October 20 conservative outside groups have combined to spend over $99 million on ads to support conservative candidates. Meanwhile, as the Independent’s Zwick observes, the “shadowy and transient nature of many new groups entering the scene has the potential to usher in a decidedly more reckless era of campaign spending in which outside spending entities that lack the accountability and reputational considerations of the national parties continue to seize a more prominent role in the national discourse.”

The Wesleyan Media Project discovered that “if recent trends continue and Congress doesn’t act, it’s possible the traditional party committees could eventually find themselves in an unfamiliar place—just one special interest group among many.”

These trends are the columniation of a series of court cases earning corporations a right that wealthy individuals have enjoyed since 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo: the right to spend an unlimited amount on independent campaign expenditures. And spend they did. Conservative groups came to view the new ruling as a kind of “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” according to one right-wing fundraiser, and a “psychological green light” by another.

According to a study published on “Think Progress,” various conservative groups had, by August 2010, already pledged to spend roughly $400 million on so-called “independent expenditures” for the coming November elections—all of it going toward Republicans. In fact this estimate turned out to be overly modest, and 2010 dwarfed what had been spent in previous midterm elections, more than doubling the amount spent four years earlier.

What’s more, right-wing billionaires and corporate titans have succeeded on another front—one that allows them to put a populist gloss on their unchanging agenda. In doing so they appear to have solved what the conservative scholar Bruce Bartlett describes as the right-wing libertarians’ age-old problem of being “all chiefs and no Indians.” And when Bartlett says “no” he means it.

Back in 1980 the oil billionaire David C. Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket. His platform endorsed the abolition of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies, the FBI, the CIA, public schools, and just about anything else, as Jane Mayer observed, that “either inhibit[ed] his business profits or increase[d] his taxes.” The party polled barely 1 percent of the popular vote.

Today Koch funds a vast network of pseudo-scientific organizations to undermine legitimate climate science, and he also funds Tea Party groups that provide foot soldiers to march on behalf of his and his fellow plutocrats’ financial and political interests. For instance, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation—which gave its Blogger of the Year Award to somebody who termed Barack Obama America’s “cokehead in chief” and accuses him of “demonic possession”—was founded by Koch, who remains its chairman. It received more than $5 million from Koch foundations in 2005 to 2008 alone.

The group’s literature complains—rather ironically given the source of its funding—that “Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests…. But you can do something about it.”

These organizations’ “all chief, no Indian” nature has no bearing on their electoral effectiveness. The Concerned Taxpayers of America, or CTA, worked tirelessly to defeat Democratic congressional candidates in Maryland. It turns out to represent exactly two taxpayers. But give CTA credit. Its membership is double that of Taxpayers Against Earmarks, or TAE, which describes itself as “dedicated to educating and engaging American taxpayers about wasteful government spending and the misguided practice of earmarks” and poured millions into races in support of conservative Republicans across the country.

Alas, the “taxpayers” were really just one taxpayer, Joe Ricketts, founder of Ameritrade and owner of the Chicago Cubs, who voluntarily disclosed his identity though he was not required to do so by law.

Still, money is money and it remains far better to be rich than to be poor. But money’s not supposed to rule a nation that calls itself a democracy. One would think a development where money does in the nation with the longest continuous history of democracy would be something of interest to those who report on it. Then again, you go to elections with the media you have.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.