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John Nichols and Robert McChesney: Progressives Ask for Too Little, Not Too Much in Age of Plutocratic Rule

(Image: Nation Books)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) writes of the new book Dollarocracy, by John Nichols and Robert McChesney:

With this book, John Nichols and Bob McChesney invite Americans to examine the challenges facing America in new ways, and to fully recognize the threat that the combination of big money and big media poses to the promise of self-government. They paint a daunting picture, rich in detail based on intense reporting and groundbreaking research. But they do not offer us a pessimistic take. Rather, they call us, as Tom Paine did more than two centuries ago, to turn knowledge into power. And they tell us that we can and must respond to our contemporary challenges as a nation by rejecting the Dollarocracy and renewing our commitment to democracy.

Truthout recently discussed with Nichols and McChesney the daunting challenge of maintaining a vibrant democracy when wealth can buy the media, the elections and the government.

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MARK KARLIN: You refer in your introduction to the “money-and-media election complex.” Would this be a good definition of Dollarocracy?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: No. By the “money-and-media election complex” we refer to the corporate media, major donors, SuperPacs, pundits, consultants, pollsters, political parties and politicians who dominate the election campaign system in America and get benefit by it. These are institutional forces that act to make our elections far from democratic and increasingly worthless.

By Dollarocracy, we are going large and offering that as a more accurate term for America today than democracy. Democracy, in the literal sense, means the “rule of the people.” Aristotle understood democracy as the rule of the poor. It meant those without property who [made up] the majority of the population effectively governed society and their social lives.

Understood this way, democracy was viewed suspiciously, if not explicitly hated, by elites. Popular victories made explicit hostility to democracy a counterproductive approach in the USA, so then the battle turned to defanging democracy so the power of the wealthy few would not be jeopardized by majority rule. Elections were always the greatest immediate threat, because it was then that everyone was (and is) absolutely equal in power. For a long time the most important battles were over the franchise – who can vote and who can’t – and the USA only became a true modern democracy with universal adult suffrage a generation ago.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the corporate community, led by the US Chamber of Commerce, became convinced that America was slipping out of its hands and the government was growing far too concerned with the needs of the poor and working class. They detested Ralph Nader, and bemoaned how he was held in high regard across the population. This is the framing for our book and our argument. Since the 1970s, as we detail, corporations and the wealthy have devoted extraordinary resources to dominating the political process and the governance of the nation. They have succeeded, as the movement of both political parties to the right demonstrates. This movement to the right is not reflected by a shift in public opinion.

They wish to create a Dollarocracy, where the society is ruled by one-dollar, one-vote, rather than one-person, one-vote. It is part of a tension that has existed since the beginning of democracy, and the problem with [it is] its marriage to societies with extreme economic inequality. Only, now it seems, the Dollarcrats have scored a series of decisive victories.

Central to this campaign has been neutering the effectiveness of elections. This has been done though the usual mechanism like gerrymandering but even more important has been the massive increase in campaign spending, as unleashed by Citizens United, the crucial role of negative TV political ads and the virtual disappearance of meaningful campaign coverage by an independent news media. That is what we cover in the book.

But I should add that we are optimists. The Dollarcrats know they cannot win a free and fair election with 55 [percent] or 60 percent turnout, not to mention 70 [percent to] 80 percent, like much the rest of the world enjoys. This is a much more progressive nation than the political system reflects. That is why they have pushed for unlimited spending by billionaires and corporations to dominate elections and why they are now pushing to make it possible to suppress the votes of poor people in a manner that is nothing short of shameless and obscene. They know this the only way the can maintain power. We have the numbers on our side.

MARK KARLIN: The two of you have been primary leaders in the effort to achieve media reform, but media consolidation just keeps increasing. What hope can you offer those concerned about a restoration of democracy that the merger of the plutocracy and the mass media won’t continue at its present pace?

JOHN NICHOLS: We’re at once more hopeful and more concerned than we were when we started working together on these issues almost 20 years ago. In the mid-1990s, sweeping changes in communications policy advanced at the behest of the industries involved with little in the way of serious debate. That has changed. People have organized, and members of Congress have become far more vocal. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which dramatically altered the broadcast landscape, especially for radio stations, passed with little opposition. Today, that sort of proposal would face a dramatic pushback.

This does not mean that supporters of a democracy-sustaining media win every fight or even most fights. But it does mean that we can prevail in fights that once would have been doomed initiatives. The Bush administration, at the height of its power, failed to achieve the dramatic changes it sought in media-ownership policy because millions of Americans objected. And despite pressure from some of the largest corporations in the country, we’ve been able to defend net neutrality and the ideal of a free and independent internet.

Media reformers are organized enough now so that, in a fair fight, we can win.

Unfortunately, the battleground is changing so that the fights are no longer even remotely fair. Indeed, they no longer play out in the proximity of the grassroots.

It’s not just that the communications landscape is altering. The political landscape is shifting so that campaign money and lobbying money has far more influence than in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, though, we have built movements that would have been sufficient to win the fights of the past, we are now entering into new fights against far better-organized and powerful special interests.

That’s why we extended our focus with this book. It is no longer possible to simply say, “Let’s get people informed and organized and we can prevail in debates about telecommunications policy, about Internet freedom, about journalism and the need to support public and community media.” This is because the debates no longer take place on that level. The big fights are for blanket control of the governing process and they are waged at the macro level, with billions (yes, billions) of dollars being directed into campaigns by billionaires like the Koch brothers and DeVos family and operatives like Karl Rove. They seek, and often obtain, a level of top-down control that overwhelms grass-roots opposition.

Their theory is that they buy things upfront and then implement – no matter what level of objection they face. So it was that, despite massive grass-roots mobilizations in Wisconsin, Scott Walker and his legislative allies simply went ahead with their anti-labor and anti-public-education initiatives. So it was that, despite a statewide referendum vote to eliminate emergency managers for Michigan cities, Rick Snyder and his legislative allies simply wrote a new law and took over Detroit.

The phenomenon is most evident in the states that have one-party rule, but it is increasingly a factor at the federal level.

It is for this reason that we talk about a need to address a money-and-media election complex. Old models of organizing remain vital, but narrow organizing around one issue or area of issues is not enough. That’s not how the money power operates; big money has gotten far better organized and far more flexible in its approach. Media reformers must do the same.

MARK KARLIN: Speaking of that, isn’t it dismaying that the Koch brothers might own the Chicago Tribune Company in the near future?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: “Dismaying” is putting it mildly. Commercial journalism is dying in the United States. Journalism aimed beyond elites to a popular audience is a public good; the market cannot produce it in sufficient quality or quantity.

Advertising masked that during the 20th century, and journalism was very profitable, especially in monopoly markets, as most newspapers enjoyed. Those days are over. The new world of digital “smart” advertising means that corporations can locate target consumers wherever they go on the Internet and no longer need to subsidize news websites to reach them. Wall Street gets this, and it is why the value of news media corporations has plummeted, to the point where a paper like The Washington Post was sold for maybe 5 [percent] or 10 percent of what it would have fetched just a decade ago.

This is true for all journalism, on old media like newspapers or on the Internet. We focus on newspapers primarily because that is where most reporters still draw paychecks. But with the demise of newspapers, there is nothing online that is emerging to replace what has been lost. The market does not work for journalism anywhere.

So people like the Koch Brothers or Jeffrey Bezos purchase daily newspapers today because of the political influence they continue to enjoy. They are political, not commercial, investments. Well, of course they are commercial, because the political issues these billionaires truly care about – smashing labor unions, ending antitrust enforcement, lowering workplace safety regulations, eliminating progressive taxation and the inheritance tax, making it easy to move assets around the globe, lowering taxes in general on the rich and business – all pay off in spades down the road for them.

We are in the truly absurd position where we root that the billionaire why buys our local monopoly newspaper and gets to dominate local politics is one we agree with. It is pathetic. What is long overdue: a serious public policy discussion of how we can have huge public investments to generate an independent, competitive nonprofit and noncommercial news media, where there are no billionaires with their laundry list of special interests controlling the system.

MARK KARLIN: Both of you are based in the Midwest – Wisconsin and Illinois. I live in the Chicago area. In our neck of the woods, we know that the biggest influence of “news perception” is television. Beyond the reality that what we see on television is a reflection of corporate ownership bias, isn’t 24-hour television a problem in itself with its emphasis on headlines and increasingly shorter news cycles? This is where most of America receives its news, after all, and it would be hard put to explore public policy in the current sound-bite format of the so-called news?

JOHN NICHOLS: You nailed it. One of biggest messages is that most of what people who discuss media policy focus on – cable news, right-wing talk radio, blogging and social media – misses the elephant in the room. Local television news programs remain dramatically influential. And, for the most part, they are dramatically damaging to the discourse. They actual warp the popular understanding of what matters so that people think the weather and crime, for instance, are more important than economic policy and public health. We don’t deny the need to know whether it’s going to rain tomorrow, and we respect that there are stories of crime patterns that really do need to be covered. But local news programs are so skewed toward simplicity and sensationalism that perspectives are warped.

Nowhere is the warping more severe than when it comes to coverage of politics. Important races get little or no coverage. And when there is coverage, it tends to be personality-based and candidate-driven rather than issue-focused. Too often, the news coverage reflects the advertising – often going so far as to make “news” of the ads. It is insidious, as we reveal in the book: Some stations actually have shaved minutes off local newscasts in order to make more space for ads.

That’s a critical point we make in the book: Local television stations used to see elections as important news events and the election season as a period when they could host debates and meet public service obligations. Now, elections are recognized as profit centers. The focus of the stations is on making money from the ads and, only in rare instances, in seriously covering campaigns and candidates. The result is that, increasingly, paid advertising defines the debate rather than news coverage and commentary.

MARK KARLIN: How do corporate-owned television stations that profit from advertising financially benefit from the current post-Citizens United political campaign environment?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: They are in heaven, and they didn’t have to die. Local TV stations got around 2 percent of their total revenues from political ads in 1992; by 2012 the figure ranged from 15 [percent to] 40 percent depending upon the station. It was all political ads, all the time on many stations. Corporate media collect well over of the $10 billion that was spent on the 2012 campaign. It is like manna from the heavens. The money is paid in advance, and the stations do no work for it. That is why the TV-station-owning corporations – which include News Corporation, Disney and Comcast – have opposed any efforts at campaign finance reform since the 1990s.

The entire system reeks of corruption, and we detail that corruption in the book. For starters, the corporations that get monopoly licenses to broadcast from the government get them for free. The deal is that these firms are supposed to do something in the public interest to justify this gift of a public resource to them. The FCC and the courts have both stated that the most important public service local TV broadcasters can do to justify getting their monopoly licenses from the government is to cover extensively local political races, so citizens can vote with greater knowledge and authority. By law, if the stations fail to provide such coverage, they will lose their licenses when the term expires and some other business will have an opportunity to see if it can do a better job.

Well, so much for the law. The stations have all significantly slashed their election coverage down to the bone in the past three decades. Why give it away for free when you can make a fortune having politicians pay for ads? And the government is so corrupt that the FCC never enforces the public interests requirements. The broadcasters basically own the politicians.

But wait, it gets worse. We chronicle many more examples in the book, but let us provide one more example: Candidate ads are protected by the First Amendment. Stations have to run them and cannot censor them because of the content. Not so, commercial advertising. Broadcasters are actually required to vet ads they carry and if they find ads to be fraudulent that are required not to air them, with the threat of losing their monopoly license if they fail to do so.

Post-Citizens United the enormous growth in TV advertising came from the dark money groups not affiliated with candidates officially. These ads were almost always negative and almost always bogus. Now these ads are supposed to be vetted by commercial stations like commercial ads; they are not protected by the First Amendment. Yet not a single time did a station ever reject one of these ads, and not once did the FCC show the slightest interest in enforcing the law. It was petrified of pissing off both politicians and commercial broadcasters. We had the absurd situation where the news departments of commercial stations would expose some of these dark money-third party ads as being entirely fraudulent … and the same station would continue to run the same ads for weeks thereafter as long as the checks cleared.

MARK KARLIN: You argue for a “muscular independent journalism.” How do we achieve such a goal in a manner that impacts the mass of America, the fly-over country the three of us live in?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Here we can be short and sweet: The solution to the problem of journalism is simple: It is a public good, like education or police. It requires public support to exist. Advertising masked that reality for the past century but now that advertising has abandoned journalism the truth returns. This point was understood in the first century of American history, when advertising played a much smaller role. Then there were massive printing and postal subsides to spawn the richest print media in the world by any standard. And today, the most democratic nations in the world all spend 40-100 times than the USA does to subsidize nonprofit and noncommercial journalism. We are off the democratic grid when it comes to journalism, and it is time to get back on it.

So it is a solvable problem. The debate America needs to have is what policies would produce the best outcomes. I talk about this a lot in “Digital Disconnect.”

MARK KARLIN: In Dollarocracy, as Robert McChesney did in Digital Disconnect (which was also a Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week), you warn readers that the Internet – when it comes to elections – is evolving in a manner that may actually be destructive to democracy. Can you elaborate on this?

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: The Internet has been turned on its head. Once considered the agent for consumer and worker power and for small business and entrepreneurs, it has become the greatest creator of monopoly giants in economic history.

These firms make much of their money by basically vacuum-cleaning up everything people do online so they can better sell stuff to us. As the NSA scandal revealed, these firms are joined at the hip to the military and national security state.

What politicians learned by 2012 – led by the Obama campaign – was that all this data could be used in extraordinary ways for fundraising, [getting] out the vote and mobilizing the troops. It is scary what is happening online. Candidates can craft different messages for individuals based on what their profiles tell them we want to hear from candidates. The era of candidates having a platform and standing on it for all to see is over.

We go into considerable detail on this in the book, and nearly all the research is original. I think it might be the chapter we are proudest of.

MARK KARLIN: You talk about a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of a US citizen to vote. Why is this so important? How would it affect the gerrymandering of electoral districts that takes place every ten years after the national census?

JOHN NICHOLS: We agree with Antonin Scalia on this one: The Constitution does not explicitly or implicitly guarantee a right to vote for president or, to our view, for most other offices in most other jurisdictions. There are some protections, both constitutional and statutory, for voting rights. But it has become increasingly clear that they are “open to interpretation” by courts that are far more interested in protecting the power of money to influence elections than in protecting the vote as the defining force in our politics.

This is an absurd circumstance, and it has meant that advocates for progressive policies are constantly forced to abandon needed projects in order to fight to defend the right to vote – and the right to have votes counted.

We will not move forward as a country until we have guaranteed the right to vote. This is not the only electoral or political reform that is needed. But it is the first reform that is needed. That is why we focus on it not just in the context of current battles but in the broader context.

What has been exciting for us is the buy-in from political leaders and civil rights groups for the idea that we need to get out of a defensive posture and begin advocating aggressively for the right to vote. Congressmen Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan have proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote and the right to have votes counted. Activist groups such as Color of Change and FairVote are organizing on behalf of an amendment. The coming months and years will see real progress on this front, as they will on the fight to overturn the Citizens United ruling with a constitutional amendment.

Mark Karlin: Bernie Sanders wrote the foreword to your book and has been an ongoing advocate of ending corporate personhood, breaking up the corporate media stranglehold, and ensuring a robust public policy debate on economic issues. But we may only have a block of four in the US Senate who come anywhere close to Sanders, including Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin and Sherrod Brown. How can we expect a Congress weaned on the mother’s milk of politics – big money – to vote for laws that would end the gravy train?

JOHN NICHOLS: We think that the dividing lines are becoming clearer and that, increasingly, Democrats are being forced to make a choice between obeying corporate contributors or responding to their party base – and to independents and progressive third-party activists with the Greens and state-based groupings such as the Vermont Progressive Party. This is healthy because the Democratic Party has, for too long, tried to have it both ways: presenting itself as an advocate for working Americans while often implementing a corporate agenda on issues such as trade policy and banking reform.

Washington is still a mess, however, and money is still most influential at the national level. That’s why we place a great deal of faith in local, regional and state-based initiatives that have two purposes: First, the enactment of genuinely progressive reforms in the jurisdictions controlled by progressives. Second, the building of a broad base of support for national reforms. Sixteen states have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and to restore the ability of federal and state officials to regulate money in politics. Hundreds of communities are on board. In the book, we detail how these movements open up the debate for reform and ultimately create a space in which we can talk seriously about amending the constitution.

Remember that, in 1900, at the close of the Gilded Age, there were plenty of folks who thought it impossible to amend the constitution in order to allow for progressive taxation, to create an elected Senate, to provide women with voting rights. By 1920, we have achieved all those goals. There was similar progress in the 1960s, on banning the poll tax, enacting civil-rights and voting-rights laws and, ultimately, providing 18- to 21-year-olds with the right to vote. As we explain in the book, it really is possible to build mass movements around the fight for constitutional reform. Possible and necessary.

MARK KARLIN: What role do the uprisings of the past few years have to play in potentially moving from Dollarocracy to democracy. Of course, I am speaking of the spontaneous Wisconsin takeover of the Capitol in Madison for weeks, the Occupy movement, the pro-immigration actions, the protests of underpaid fast-food workers, among many other examples. Is there the possibility of something developing that has the emotional power and moral justice of the Civil Rights Movement that might be able to outpower big money?

JOHN NICHOLS: We write a good deal about the uprisings. They are inspiring, and they are ongoing: In Madison, in Columbus, in Lansing against the anti-labor initiatives of 2011 and 2012, on Wall Street and across the country in response to income inequality and economic injustice, in Raleigh for voting rights, in Austin for women’s rights, in Tallahassee for the overturning of “Stand Your Ground” laws. Americans are so frustrated with government that responds only to the money power; they want democracy to be renewed and made real. And they are using the tools afforded by the founders: the right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances. The key, now, to do exactly what the progressive movement of a century ago and the civil rights and anti-poverty movements of 50 years ago did: we must turn the radical demands heard on the street into radical demands at the ballot box and in the legislative process.

Mass movements have always mattered in America. They have always been the sparks that have ignited real change. Only by denying history and experience can we convince ourselves that it is impossible to change things. The reality is that we already have the outlines for the mass movements that will reshape and renew the United States in the 21st century. Our only concern is that there is a pressure to dumb-down and diminish the demands of these movements as they enter the political process. That doesn’t work; it never has. Compromise dulls the appetite for real change. We’re not arguing for absolutism. But we are saying that activists should not be cautious about demanding real reforms: constitutional amendments, new voting systems, publicly funded and democracy-sustaining campaigns, publicly funded and democracy-sustaining media.

If there is an essential point to our book – beyond exposing the extent of the current crisis – it is to suggest that the failure of progressives in recent decades has not been that they have asked for too much. It is that they have asked for too little. Polling tells us that Americans are deeply frustrated with politics as usual, with media as usual. We respect that frustration and propose an alternative that embraces the most powerful tools afforded us by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Tom Paine.

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