The ferocity of US presidential campaigns – supposedly proof of a spirited debate between competing ideas and visions – is more of a contest among competing financial interests fighting for influence and market share, not democratic ideals.
With the US presidential election nearing its conclusion November 6, it seems worth noting, amid the self-promoting noise and bombast in the corporate media, that this is the most expensive election on earth, and that our election seasons last longer than in any other nation. More than $6 billion will have been spent on the Romney-Obama contest after two years of socially disruptive campaigning and fundraising.
For comparison, strict legal limits on campaign spending and a fast-paced electoral calendar in France ensured that their recent presidential election, including the runoff in May 2012, cost less than $50 million and lasted one month.
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Mitt Romney and Barack Obama currently spend about as much on TV ads each week as the total cost of France’s 2012 national election.
In the 36 years since Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter ran for president, the money spent on US presidential campaigns has increased 23 fold. This stupendous increase in campaign spending has almost nothing to do with an increase in democracy. It is more accurately viewed as a form of ostentatious national advertising spectacle on one hand, and a cutthroat bidding war by US-based global bankers on the other. The bankers’ goal is to ensure an undemocratic outcome favorable to their interests. The election media blitz is placed center stage to distract attention from the anti-democratic bidding war taking place behind the scenes.
As advertising propaganda, the $6 billion, two-year media spectacle of a presidential contest is the biggest Hollywood epic of them all. This electoral blockbuster is intended to act as overwhelming proof to the world and the domestic electorate that US democracy is still the most vital and high-stakes political system in the world. In a nation of rampant consumerism, it is the ultimate form of conspicuous consumption. Yet the louder, more deafening and more costly this election bonanza becomes, the further it drifts from its democratic moorings.
In best Hollywood fashion, the duration, ubiquity and cost of the election are designed to entertain and distract, not to serve democracy. This elaborate sweepstakes numbs the domestic electorate into submission to gain their acquiescence in a choice between two neoliberal candidates who have been carefully vetted by those who are paying for the media extravaganza – Wall Street and its speculative cronies in the defense, energy and real estate sectors. At the same time, the spectacle is an attempt to dazzle the international audience with the sheer size and duration of the pyrotechnic display that is ostensibly being mounted in the service of a vibrant democracy.
The bidding war
Behind the scenes, a ferocious bidding war is taking place among competing economic interests to shape the policies of the next administration. The ferocity of US presidential campaigns is meant to be seen as proof of a spirited democratic debate between competing ideas and visions. In reality, it is more accurate to see it as evidence of a contest among the competing financial interests that are paying for the candidates. These financial interests are fighting for influence and market share, not democratic ideals. Their multibillion-dollar investment in electoral politics is simply an extension of an ongoing, and profoundly anti-democratic, economic assault aimed at consolidating the financial sector’s grip on the world’s largest economy.
It is not a mere coincidence that the timeline of this historic increase in US campaign spending parallels a similar increase in the financialization of the global economy. Worldwide financial transactions jumped in value from 15 times global gross domestic product (GDP) in 1997 to 70 times today. Similarly, the six largest banks in the United States now control assets valued at 64 percent of annual GDP, up from 17 percent in 1995. The political spending and influence of financial speculators has increased in lock step with their economic power under the ongoing neoliberal program of financial deregulation that began in the 1980s under Reagan and Thatcher.
Accordingly, the financial sector is the largest source of campaign money for the candidates. Over the past ten years, the financial sector has spent $2.7 billion on lobbying expenses and donated an additional $1 billion to political candidates, including Mr. Romney and President Obama in 2012. Indeed, Mr. Romney’s top 20 contributors are all financial firms. This trend is likely to increase because of the recent US Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United, which lifted all limits on independent campaign expenditures. As just one example, it is estimated that the billionaire Koch brothers of Texas will spend $1 billion of their personal fortune in support of Mr. Romney in the 2012 US election.
In the new financialized economy, the simple democratic notion of “one person, one vote” is now dead.
From this perspective, the 2012 US election is like a high-technology shell game. While voters are distracted by the enormously expensive media spectacle, the global financial class, embodied in the United States by what is called the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate and energy), continues its march toward privatization of the entire public sector. With the right US president, this global speculative class believes it will finally be able to eliminate all opposition to its privatization and austerity agenda. The model for its program is Greece.
Does it matter?
Given the wholesale financialization of US national politics, does it make any difference whether Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney is elected?
The answer is yes, it matters a great deal.
John Lennon is reported to have once said that in Britain, the difference between Labor and the Conservatives was miniscule. But Lennon immediately added that this tiny, tiny difference was also the space where most of us live our lives. The same is true of Democrats and Republicans in the United States. The difference has never been more miniscule. Ironically, it is also true that it has rarely been more important.
While either candidate will be severely constrained by the enormous imbalances in political and economic power that favor the FIRE and military sectors, the victor is nonetheless the US commander in chief, with access to the world’s largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Even small differences in a candidate’s temperament become important when dealing with a $1 trillion annual military machine, a machine that costs twice as much as the rest of the world’s annual military budgets combined.
The election also matters to the extent that Mr. Obama may serve as a tiny impediment to the Wall Street and Pentagon agenda. Mr. Romney is clearly 100 percent captive to both Wall Street and the same neoconservative hawks who guided George W. Bush’s pre-emptive, militaristic foreign policy.
Mr. Obama is proposing small but steady reductions in the Pentagon budget, regulation of the US health insurance cartels, modest tax increases for the wealthy and an emphasis on larger public sector investments in education, health care, clean energy and infrastructure.
Mr. Obama’s agenda is still guided by an imperial ethos, but it is a much less virulent and war-prone version than Mr. Romney’s. If nothing else, another term for Mr. Obama buys more time for countervailing democratic movements to grow, develop and organize at the grassroots across outdated ideological lines to create a stronger opposition movement for the future.
This article by Truthout contributor Michael Meurer was first commissioned and published in Spanish on the popular Argentine blog ¿alquien tiene algo que decir? by Buenos Aires attorney and political activist Sergio Carciofi to give his readers a progressive US perspective on the US election.