It makes my head spin to think that I have already been teaching long enough to tell this tale, but…

In 2004 I taught my very first undergraduate course, 16 weeks on presidential elections for 90 students. Based on my own belief that the amount of money in presidential elections is increasing exponentially rather than linearly – essentially doubling every four years rather than a steady increase on the order of 10% annually – I promised the students that they would see a half-billion dollar election in 2004. To say they were incredulous would be an understatement; they wrote me off as either a complete idiot or a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist with some curious ideas about what made the World Trade Center collapse. The class ended before the FEC data were finalized, but the combined Kerry ($225 million) and Bush ($272 million) campaigns fell within millimeters of the half-billion figure. And that was merely the official, on-the-books "hard money" raised and spent by the campaigns themselves. Hundreds of millions more were spent by 527 groups, the DNC/RNC, unsuccessful presidential candidates, and so on.
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Ed 1, credulity 0. For the next several years in a variety of courses I promised groups of skeptical students that we would see a billion dollar election in 2008 (major party nominees' campaigns only) with 0 million left over for the primary losers and non-campaign spending.
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I guessed low.

In 2008 we had a half-billion dollar primary and a general election that saw the Obama campaign raise $58 per second for the entire month of October. Obama raised $745 million, McCain a "mere" $370 million. Mitt Romney spent $107 million and didn't make it out of February. Rudy Giuliani spent $58 million and didn't make it out of Florida. The RNC threw another $120 million onto McCain's sinking ship. Non-campaign groups poured in more. It was, by almost any account, obscene. We even had a burst of passion for reform from conservatives (oddly enough it came when they were outspent for the first time since reliable records became available).

Now in the wake of Citizens United vs. FEC plenty has been said about the folly of corporate personhood and the opened floodgates courtesy of the patriotic, non-activist majority on the Supreme Court. There appears to be widespread consensus that this is a bad thing. This is all correct, of course, but here is the thing: you have no idea how fucking ridiculous this is going to get in 2012. We will look back on 2008 as a simpler time.

A decent guess is impossible to generate since we are in uncharted waters from this point forward. An obvious guess would be another 100% increase; I think that will be a baseline. The campaigns themselves will double the $1.5 billion spent by all contenders in 2008. How much will corporate groups – not to mention various other tax code loophole groups – toss on the fire? Another $3 billion seems like a reasonable guess, equal to the amount that the candidates spend on the books. I think that's an understatement. $10 billion? $20 billion? More? It's not out of the question. I could just be a pessimist, but I think we are in for something so grotesque and ridiculous that we'll scarcely be able to grasp it. In short, we could be in for an election so obscenely expensive that it could shock us into real reform.

But I wouldn't count on it.

41 thoughts on “YOU ARE NOT READY”

  • If 1 billion dollars of campaign spending didn't shock us into reform, why would 3 billion? Provided that the mass of Americans remain oblivious to the ruinous effect of big money on democracy, I see no reason why your average citizen would balk at even more money. Campaigns are already special-interest-fueled blood-sports, months upon months of political theater and spectacle, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For most people it's all just another form of highly produced celebrity entertainment – but if Lindsey Lohan and Lady Gaga were competing against each other for our affections. Campaigns are costing us 3, 4, 5 billion a cycle, you say? All the more money to entertain us with, all the more money for the slick tabloid-style narratives that will keep us glued to CNN. No, exponentially expanding campaign costs will not worry most Americans. It will just make the narratives shriller, the ads slicker, the fights less civil, the the arguments less and less about issues – in short, more FUN.

    Amazing to think that E.E. Schattschneider actually sounds quaint now when he says that "the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent." What pluralist heaven?

  • I wish your prediction wouldn't be true, but I'm afraid it most likely will come to pass. And, let us not forget that while foreign entities cannot participate, that doesn't mean their American subsidiaries cannot. Once that starts up, I'm sure things will get hyper ridiculous at warp speed. It just makes me wonder whether the Citizens United decision is going to end up with candidates vetted and chosen by corporations themselves, which I think would end up with elections functioning more as a pitched battle of corporate ideals played out on the political playground. Oh wait…

  • What is the ideal answer? I picture a campaign limited to a certain number of public appearances and debates, with a published platform available to all — which may be silly or naive, but I can't imagine what isn't. We have passed corporate sponsorship of candidates and are headed for direct representation of corporate entities.

    One of Robert Heinlein's books featured "the senator from Standard Oil" — which used to be thought-provoking and a little humorous, and now is imminent and scary.

  • This is a sad and disgusting issue, and your prediction (which I expect to be right) is a dismal one. All this is just more evidence that we are no longer a society to be taken seriously; we are a nation of buffoons.

  • The key indicator here — and I'm only half-joking — is when Goldman Sachs starts selling Sarah Palin futures whilst front-running their own bets against her.

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    What I've found absurd was the number of comments I've seen on newspaper sites blaming the Supreme Court's decision on liberals. Wow– The ignorance is astounding!

  • @Displaced: That would be because, in modern American political parlance, Liberal and Conservative no longer have any meaning. They are simply categorical labels that each opposing side uses to encompass "anything and everything I don't like". Conservatives don't see the Supreme Court decision as "an instance where the conservative political dogma to which I subscribe has disastrous side effects". They see it as "this is clearly a bad decision, so obviously the Lib'ruls did it".

    See also: recent attempts to revise history to paint Fascism as a phenomenon of the political left, even though the very basic tenents of Fascism are counter to every part of even the most extreme leftist political ideology. It's bad, so it must be the Lib'ruls.

    The sad part is, the people that signed our democracy (or our republic, when they want to float ideas of disenfranchising undesireables without sounding completely fascist) over to the corporations, if they even notice how their freedom is now bought and paid for by their corporate masters, won't even recognize it as their own mistake.

    We all knew that the cyberpunk nightmare of absolute corporatocracy was going to happen eventually in our ultra-capitalist machine. We just didn't realize that we were going to get all the horror of Democracy, Inc.'s corporate police without all the neato technology and cybernetics.

  • Two random thoughts:

    1) Exponential expansion is unsustainable. I don't what sort of event will bring to down, or when it will be, but it's out there. Perhaps it is the total collapse of civilization as we know it.

    2) Can't speak for Lindsey Lohan, but Lady Gaga, actually has talent. Back when she was Staphanie Germanetti, she had great pipes, and serious piano chops. And look what's become of her.

    3) OK, an addendum. This really does sound frighteningly lke the end of the world. If I weren't an agnostic, I'd repent now, just to be on the safe side.


  • "so obscenely expensive that it could shock us into real reform."

    This is America, Ed. The only thing obscene in this country is naked flesh.

    @ Displaced Capitalist: it's not ignorance, it's basic ideological logic – "Liberals = Bad, therefore all Bad Things = Liberal in source" This apllies until Things are re-defined from 'Bad' to 'Good', when they then fall under the Other Rule: "Conservative = Good, therefore all Good Things = Conservative in source". Just tear out the old, wrong page in the history books and replace it with the new, correct page.

  • So, like let me get this straight. Ed, you are suggesting that the lower limit would be 6 billion for the presidential campaign of 2012 and the upper is 20 billion? Either one is appalling, but maybe its not that significant a number. Doesn't that add up to about $20 a head for every man woman and child? Sure $20 billion is a lot of money, but some people, (not even very rich people) spend that much on Starbucks. Heck, you'd drop $20 on a movie for two at a the local multiplex. So in terms of entertainment, thats not a lot of money at all.

    Sure its awful but maybe its not the end of the world? I am sure that there is a lot more room for expansion.

  • duh oh! (forehead slap) – what I meant to say was $20 billion seems like a lot of money all at once, but plenty of people spend $20 a month on Starbucks coffee. If you spread it out, $20 for every man woman and child in the US is well within the realm of the middle class entertainment budget. Heck, look at the price of admission for a football or basket ball game. Politics is a bargain in terms of entertainment.

  • I'll say that yeah, I'm also afraid Ed is probably correct… while still chuckling, with disgust at the reality of it, at wombat's comment.

    One initial thought I had was… wow, maybe elections could be the new American industry to get us out of recession.

    Inre displaced Capitalist – I was struck by the apparently conservative comments that completely belittled anyone expressing concern about the Court's decision; in some kind of alternate tea bagger universe they all decided that it was always and only about: free speech, my First Amendment rights and good people standing up for flea-bitten, unappreciative communists like me.

    As if I'd personally gagged Mr. Exxon, who lives down the street.

  • The folly will continue until either

    a) the Chinese finally have had enough amusement at watching us destroy ourselves with multiple, stupid expensive spectacles, and decide to call in their loans

    b) the corporatocracy no longer figures its necessary to distract and fool people with the illusion of choice every four years

  • I should call my bookie in London and ask him what the spread is for the Mittster's State of the Union address in 2017 introduced on TV as "The Romney Presidency — Brought to You by Citibank."

  • Julie- in Idiocracy the newly inaugurated President wears a suit advertising a sports drink. Prophetic?
    Funny movie… I think a lot of people didn't like it because the depiction of a fat, dull, society of hyper consumption hit a little too close to home.

  • I don't give a rat's ass how much these idiots spend to get elected. However I am furious at the amount of taxcpayer money they spend. That's what we need to concentrate on.

  • Crazy for Urban Planning says:

    I would just add that it is time to move out of data collection and begin brainstorming solutions to this problem. I have always loved the House of Commons system of an election within two weeks of calling for it, but that couldn't work for us. I think the most reasonable suggestion was laid out by an earlier poster – that is limit the amount of appearances and the number of advertisements by any candidate. I'm not sure on the details, I just wish it wasn't so long! If I remember correctly Obama "announced" he would run for President back in Feb of 2007 – that is 12 whole months before a single vote was cast in Iowa. That is mind numbingly stupid. Wasn't he supposed to be representing the people of Illinois during that time? Insane!

  • How is it the Supreme Court's fault that the law wasn't constitutional? Seems like a lot of people think the Supreme Court should make decisions on how things "should be" instead of following and interpreting the law. If the law or constitution needs changing, there is a mechanism for changing it. Blaming conservatives or liberals misses the point. The Supreme Court made the correct decison. Its not the decision that was bad, it was the law that wasn't constitutional. So to fix it you either need a law that will pass muster, or you need to amend the constitution.

    I would hate to see a world where the Supreme Court makes decisions based on political whims, rather than the solid basis of the constitution. Or wasn't that the whole point of making them an unelected branch? So they'd not have to worry about angry voters (the mob mentality) and could just interpret the law.

  • "he Supreme Court made the correct decison."
    They made the decision on the notion that artificial constructs (corporations) were the equivalent to the individual.

  • You're all kidding yourselves if you think this is too much money. Do you think that a presidential election is at all important?

    Do you realize that Avatar cost over $500 million dollars (although some estimates put global marketing efforts in the $2 billion range) and this is a friggin' MOVIE! What about the Dallas Cowboys spending $1.15 BILLION on a new STADIUM! (oh, but that's football, so it is much more important than who is running the country)

    Go back to your cinema and arena and delude yourself into thinking that money is the root of all evil, you country rubes!

  • Corporations are created with "legal personhood", and the Supreme Court determined that they should have rights to spend money on politics just like any other "person". I don't have a problem with this in principle, considering how much money was poured in by the likes of MoveOn, ACORN and other organizations.

    Why should special interest groups like MoveOn be able to pour a ton of cash in to promote their agendas, and corporations not be able to do the same. Why are corporate agendas any worse than other special interests?

    I think any "fix" should be fair. If you're going to ban corporations, you should also ban all other forms of organizations. Or, you should let everyone have their say.

  • "Exponential" does not mean what you think it means.

    Even if this is a rant, if you are a professor (or "teacher" in a college) you could have done without the 'f' word.

    Also, your sarcasm re: Citizens United vs FEC is not funny. There might be "widespread consensus" among whomever that this is bad thing [just like there was consensus among "scientific community" about "global warming"], but from a legal perspective the Court came to the right conclusion.

    Come to think of it, if the President can influence the economy, favors, taxes, controls, regulation, earmarks, corruption, and hugh swath of foreign and domestic policy matters, why should 500 million or a billion be a big deal? This year's budget is over 3.6 trillion with the deficit alone in the 1,500 billion range. Wouldn't you "invest" a few measly billions to be able to have that power?

  • ex·po·nen·tial
    Pronunciation: \ˌek-spə-ˈnen-chəl\

    1 : of or relating to an exponent
    2 : involving a variable in an exponent
    3 : expressible or approximately expressible by an exponential function; especially : characterized by or being an extremely rapid increase (as in size or extent)

  • Whoa, Supremes and Saxon:

    I don't know where you're getting the notion that Citizens United was somehow obviously the right decision as a strictly legal matter. It was a 5-4 decision, which means that four very smart jurists seemed to think it was the wrong decision. It was a close cases and, as they say, close cases make bad law…So, the idea that people who are upset with the decision just want to wish away the law as it is, or the constitution as it is, is utter bullshit.

    In fact, it's quite the opposite; it appears like it was the conservatives on the court who were the "activists" here, finding rights in the 1st amendment that don't exist in the text or our traditions of constitutional interpretation. If you read Stevens' dissent, he makes a cogent case that there were numerous ways that the majority could have construed the issue narrowly (i.e. conservatively, i.e. as Roberts claimed he would make decisions in his confirmation hearings), but that the conservatives went out of their way to write new 1st amendment law, in the process overruling a century of precedent. No, it's not liberals that want constitutional law to be different than it is. If anything, it was the conservatives on the court that are radically altering our century-long understanding of 1st amendment jurisprudence. So, fuck off.

  • I love it when conservatives think they're super-smart and try to be all condescending, and fail spectacularly. Also, "Saxon", what a hilarious handle! They were blitzed from existence by the ethnic mulching pot that is the UK.

    Also, I echo Rosa: fuck off and buy an English-Stupid dictionary, Saxon.

  • Corporations are created with "legal personhood",

    The hell you say. This whole shit pile is based on some commentary back in the 1880's by former railroad executive who was clerking for the court, ans editorialized in some document.

    It all blew up from there. To believe the Citizens United decision is correct you have to beleive that:

    1) A clerk's opinion can be the basis of law.
    2) A corporation has the rights, not only of a person, but of a CITIZEN. Never mind that many corporations are multinational, or perhaps more accurately, extra-national.
    3) Money is speech.

    How fucking stupid is that?


  • John Magnum says:

    I was hoping someone would point this out–10% growth per year is ALSO exponential. Spending = (Initial Spending) + (1.10) ^ (Years). Its doubling period is eight years, not four, but it's still exponential growth.

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