Sometimes words outlive their usefulness. Sometimes the gap between changing reality and the names we’ve given it grows so wide that they empty of all meaning or retain older meanings that only confuse us. “Election,” “presidential election campaign,” and “democracy” all seem like obvious candidates for name-change.
I thought about this recently as President Obama hustled around my hometown, snarling New York traffic in the name of Campaign 2012. He was, it turned out, “hosting” three back-to-back fundraising events: one at the tony Gotham Bar and Grill for 45 supporters at $35,800 a head (the menu: roasted beet salad, steak and onion rings, with apple strudel, chocolate pecan pie, and cinnamon ice cream — a meal meant to “shine a little light” on American farms); one for 30 Jewish supporters at the home of Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, for at least $10,000 a pop; and one at the Sheraton Hotel, evidently for the plebes of the contribution world, that cost a mere $1,000 a head. (Maybe the menu there was rubber chicken.)
In the course of his several meals, the president pledged his support for Israel (in the face of Republican charges that he is eternally soft on the subject), talked about “taxes and the economy” to his undoubtedly under-taxed listeners, and made this stirringly meaningless but rousing comment: “No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, we're one nation. We're one people. And that's what's at stake in this election."
Outside his final event, Occupy Wall Street protesters saw something else at stake, dubbing him the “1% president.” The end result from a night’s heavy lifting: $2.4 million for his election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, nowhere close to 1% of what they will need for the next year.
These were the 67th, 68th, and 69th fundraisers attended by Obama so far in 2011, or the 71st, 72nd, and 73rd. (It depended on who was counting.) In either case, we’re talking about approximately one fundraiser every five days, a total of 6% of the events in which Obama took part in this non-election year.
Think about that. You vote for the president to spend some part of 20% of his days raising money for his own future from the incredibly wealthy. Or put another way, the Washington Post now estimates that if you add in the non-fundraising, election-oriented events that involve him — 63 so far in 2011 — perhaps 12% of his time is taken up with campaign efforts of one sort or another; and this is what he’s been doing 12 to 24 months before the election is scheduled to happen.
New York being the home of… gulp… Wall Street (1%! 1%!), Obama doesn’t exactly have it to himself. Mitt Romney was heading into town on December 14th for his own rousing round of four fundraisers. One at the Waldorf Astoria will be hosted by — you can’t be balder than this — four JPMorgan Chase executives, including James B. “Jimmy” Lee, Jr., the vice chairman of the company and the “banker who battled the Obama administration over the restructuring of Chrysler LLC.” And oh yes, Romney leads Obama in funding support from billionaires, 42 to 30 (with Rick Perry taking third place at 20).
In the 2008 election, JPMorgan employees gave $4.6 million to the candidates of their choice, coming in behind only Goldman Sachs and Citigroup on The Street. Now that, I would say, is actual electoral power. Perhaps it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that the voting that matters most takes place at those fundraisers, not in the booths where, billions of dollars in attack ads later, the usual hoi polloi pull the handles on electoral slot machines.
Their Bread, Our Circus
In ancient Rome, the emperors provided the capital’s inhabitants with “bread and circuses.” Ever since, that combination has been shorthand for rulers buying off the ruled with the necessities of life and spectacle.
In Rome, that spectacle involved gladiatorial and other elaborate games of death that took place in the Colosseum. In this age, our rulers, the 1% whose money has flooded the electoral cycle, are turning the election itself into our extended circus. This year, a series of Republican televised “debates” have glued increasing numbers of eyeballs to screens — and not just Republican eyeballs, either. Everyone waits for the latest version of a reality show to produce the next cat fight, fabulous gaffe, late-night laugh line, confession, denial, scandal, or plot twist, the next thumbs up or, far better, thumbs down on some candidate’s increasingly brief political life in the arena.
Think of it as their bread and our circus. Who can doubt that, like the crowds of Rome once upon a time, we await the inevitable thumbs-down vote and the YouTube videos that precede and follow it with a kind of continuing bloodlust? The only problem: however strange all this may be, it’s not, at least in the old-fashioned sense, an election nor does it seem to have much to do with democracy. The fact is that we have no word for what’s going on. Semi-democracy? Unrepresentative democracy? 1% democracy? Demospectacracy?
Of course, we still speak of this as a presidential election campaign, and it’s true that 11 months from now more than 60% of the voting age population will step into polling booths across the country and cast ballots. But let’s face it, if this is an election at all, it’s certainly one stricken with elephantiasis. Once, as now, a presidential race had primaries, conventions, campaigning, mudslinging, and sometimes even a few debates, but all of this had limits. In recent years, the limits — almost any limits — have been disappearing. Along the way, the process has expanded from an eight-month-long affair that most voters only began to attend to sometime in the fall of election year to a perpetual campaign, perpetually discussed, reported on, and displayed.
The primaries, for instance, have been on a forced march toward ever-earlier dates. Iowa’s — actually a “caucus” — is now on January 3rd of election year and the first official primary, New Hampshire’s is on January 10th. (Over the years, it’s repeatedly had to move its date forward from March to hold onto that status.) This time around, the “debates” leading up to the primaries began last May; previously meaningless party “straw polls,” covered as monumental events by hundreds of reporters, accompanied them; the first of a World War I-style barrage of attack ads was launched in the same period, and the opinion polls on various constellations of likely (or unlikely) candidates — what Jonathan Schell once called our “serial elections” — preceded everything, accompanied by endless media speculation about them.
It's an ever-expanding system, engorging itself on money and sucking in ever larger audiences. It’s the Blob of this era. In fact, the next campaign now kicks off in the media the day after (if not the day before) the previous election ends with speculation (polls soon to follow) handicapping the odds of future candidates, none yet announced.
The Perpetual Campaign
Once upon a time, the perpetual candidate — former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen was the classic example — proved a kind of running joke. No longer. Now, the president himself essentially begins his campaign for a second term almost as soon as he enters the Oval Office.
Similarly, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the media-anointed Republican nominee of this electoral cycle, has in fact been running for president since at least 2006. It's been his only real “job” since leaving the governorship in 2008. In his life, he is now the embodiment of the perpetual candidate, and yet even those who make him the butt of endless TV jokes don’t find that fact strange or particularly worthy of comment.
Everywhere you care to look, the expansion of the presidential race is evident. In the fall of 1948, in an election he was supposed to lose, Democratic President Harry (“give ‘em hell”) Truman barnstormed the nation by train, decrying a “do-nothing Congress.” By comparison, President Obama has been out this fall — the equivalent of 1947 — on what is clearly the campaign trail denouncing his own version of a do-nothing Congress. And that’s only a start when it comes to turning election “year” into Election Life.
On money, the sky’s the limit. In 2000, the total federal election season cost $3 billion; in 2008, more than $5 billion, of which an estimated $2.4 billion went into the presidential campaign. With the Supreme Court having made it easier for outside money to pour in, thanks to its Citizens United decision, funding for campaign 2012 is expected to pass $6 billion and could even top $7 billion. The Obama campaign, which raised $760 million in 2008, is expected to pass the billion-dollar mark this time around (with money already pouring in from the financial and banking sector on which candidate Mitt Romney is also heavily reliant).
TV advertising alone, which topped $2.1 billion in 2008, is expected to reach or exceed $3 billion this time around. These are, of course, staggering sums. Already the attack ads, mostly on the president, mostly from the sort of Super PACs that Citizens United let loose in the land, are zinging away far in advance of any previous presidential campaign season. According to the Washington Post, $23 million worth of attack ads have come and gone, half of that from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. And as one analyst quoted by the New York Times put it, “These dollar figures we’re talking about now are going to seem quaint in a few months. And they’ll seem really quaint in eight or nine months.”
For comparison’s sake, back in 1976, in the era when pundits were first beginning to write about presidential elections as perpetual campaigns, the total spending of presidential candidates Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter was $66.9 million.
This inundation of money has also meant an inundation of lobbyists. President Obama officially refuses to take campaign contributions from lobbyists. The New York Times recently reported, however, that 15 of his top “bundlers,” who give their own money and solicit that of others for the campaign — none registered as federal lobbyists — are “involved in lobbying for Washington consulting shops or private companies,” and they are raising millions for him. A June report from the Center for Public Integrity concluded: “President Obama granted plum jobs and appointments to almost 200 people who raised large sums for his  presidential campaign, and his top fundraisers have won millions of dollars in federal contracts.”
And the 2012 Republican field of presidential contestants puts Obama in the shade. They seem determined to campaign cheek to jowl with as many lobbyists as they can corral. More than 100 federal lobbyists have already contributed to Mitt Romney’s campaign, while Rick Perry has evidently risen to candidate status on the shoulders of Mike Toomey, a former gubernatorial chief of staff, friend, and money-raising lobbyist whose clients “have won $2 billion in [Texas] state government contracts since 2008.” And that’s only scratching the surface.
In the meantime, a national machinery has been set up to staff that perpetual campaign. By early October (again 2011, not 2012), according to the New York Times, the Obama campaign had opened offices in 15 states, had paid employees in 38 states, and had a Chicago headquarters with a paid staff of 200. Thirteen months before the actual election, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee had already shelled out “close to $87 million in operating costs.” At this point, there is no Republican equivalent, as the many Republican candidates are still involved in the struggle for the nomination, while Obama, as vulnerable a president as we’ve seen in our time, miraculously lacks even a symbolic primary challenger.
At the heart of the ever-expanding presidential campaign sit the media, especially television — especially those ads. In 1996, when Republican Robert Dole ran against President Bill Clinton, the two camps spent an estimated $113 million for ads, almost all for television. In the 2008 election for all federal offices, $2.7 billion went into television advertising.
This year, when the media is feeling the pinch of hard times, $3 billion dollars in prospective TV ads must look like manna from heaven. In fact — though no one in the media ever writes about it — this has to represent one of the great conflict of interest stories of our time, maybe of all time. The pundits, commentators, reporters, and news announcers who once again seem so intent on convincing us that this will be the election of the century are essentially drumming up business for the owners of their networks or cable stations who will profit handsomely, even staggeringly, from the dollars that those glued eyeballs bring in.
So Fox, for instance, is now a constant debate central for Republican candidates and is, in turn, pulling in advertising at a rate ahead of the 2008 campaign cycle. “Like CNN, MSNBC and others,” writes Dan Hirschhorn of Ad Age, “Fox News is set to benefit from the proliferation of third-party political and issue advocacy groups including Super PACs and 527s, which can afford national airtime and are gearing up to be major players in 2012 politics.”
And like any reality show, for this one to succeed so far ahead of its appointed season, you need the constant drama of contestants being ushered on and off stage, of spectacular rises and no less spectacular collapses. Hence, the stories of Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, which (if you were of a conspiratorial mind) might almost seem too good (or bad) to be true.
So far, the media’s election blitz has proven remarkably successful. The audience for the very first Republican debate of 2011 almost doubled the audience for the first Republican debate of the 2008 campaign. And as this round of debates has gained steam, it has nearly doubled its own initial numbers. Meanwhile, the media version of the election campaign is visibly becoming a too-big-to-fail juggernaut. In the process, it seems that we, the citizens, the viewers, have been given an election life sentence. Our job is to sit and watch while the action happens elsewhere.
It’s true that, on November 6, 2012, Americans will enter voting booths and choose a candidate for president, and that makes this an “election.” But thinking of it that way won’t get you far. It’s also true, that, on January 20, 2013, a newly elected president will step into the Oval Office. What any of this has to do with democracy, as opposed to spectacle, influence, corruption, the power of the incredibly wealthy to pay for and craft messages, and the power of media owners to enhance their profits is certainly an open question. Think, at least, how literally the old phrase "money talks" is being updated every time you hear the candidates, or see their ads, or get a robocall from one of them, or receive a geo-targeted mobile ad of theirs on your iPhone or Android.
It’s clear enough — or should be by now — that the electoral process has been occupied by the 1%; which means that what you hear in this “campaign” is largely refracted versions of their praise, their condemnation, their slurs, their views, their needs, their fears, and their wishes. They are making money off, and electing a president via, you. Which means that you — that all of us — are occupied, too.
So stop calling this an “election.” Whatever it is, we need a new name for it.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, where this article first appeared. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.