Written by Ben Resnik on June 12, 2013

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"Dollarocracy""rule by the dollar"what a great and telling name for a shrinking American democracy that every day loses ground to the command-and-control of unchecked money. Somebody ought to write a book based on the idea.

Just in: somebody has! Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America is the title of a just-released "must-read" by prodigious historian/scholar Robert McChesney and force-of-nature journalist John Nichols. Their book gets at what's ailing America better than any diagnosis I have encountered. Plus it prescribes some cures. What more could a reader"or a citizen" ask? To me, it's the book of the year.

This is the story of how corporate media and its big-time sponsors have redefined our politics, bought elections, captured public policy-making, made government the enemy of the people, and denuded the free and independent press upon which informed citizenry depends. Government today is neither art nor science; it is money, pure and simple. It is hard to hear America singing in 2012. Dollarocracy is also the story of why, without massive reform on the order of Progressivism and the New Deal, our democracy can only continue to shrink.

That democracy has contracted even since last November's elections is beyond reasonable debate. The embers of hope sparked by the President's reelection are struggling for oxygen, fast flickering away under the suffocating weight of money, money, and more money. In the 2012 election cycle, large corporations, Super Pacs and the Super Rich pumped billions into often-anonymous and inevitably-misleading TV political ads. (Irony: candidates ask for our money so they can pay broadcasters to use the airwaves that belong to"_ us. Are we missing something here?) Anyhow, the bulk of the $10 billion spent in the 2012 election cycle went into media. The stations on the receiving end of this largesse are the same ones telling us they can no longer afford to employ real journalists. Nichols and McChesney tell us that, on a per capita basis, "less than half as much time and money is devoted to journalism today as was the case twenty-five years ago."

Repairing our broken election machinery to guarantee the right to vote with ease, without intimidation and complexity, and without Neanderthal voting processes that no other democracy would think of tolerating, seems a mountain too high for our present government to climb. Prove me wrong, I pray, but it would take leadership like we seldom see nowadays to redeem the President's election night ad lib: "By the way, we have to fix that." Money is pouring into the next elections even as the special interests collect their last-cycle IOUs from City Hall to state-house to Capitol Hill. Congress and the rest of official Washington seem incapable of biting the corporate and billionaire hands that feed them. Ditto much of government at other levels.

So forget all those "hurrahs" about big money getting its comeuppance in the last election: it won, we lost. Substantive reform can't even be debated, let alone voted on, in a United States Senate that totally abuses minority (and majority) rights by invoking filibuster rules never intended by the Constitution or by the original rules of Congress. Meanwhile, blunderbuss budget sequesters cripple needed social and public safety programs and, adding insult to injury, rob government workers and their families of one- fifth of their pay-checks for weeks on end. Meanwhile the Espionage Act lives and what remains of the inquiring press (and not much is left) is told to get out of the way or be cited for conspiracy.

Even the courts have been infected. Indeed, without the blessing of the courts, we would have avoided the worst of the train-wreck. We all hold our breaths each time a new Supreme Court edict is about to be pronounced. Among the many compelling stories it tells, Dollarocracy documents how precedents were perverted, money became speech, and corporations became people. There is an almost straight line from the infamous Lewis Powell memorandum that sounded the trumpet for business to mobilize against the unwashed democratic masses to the dollar frenzy unleashed by the Citizens United decision. How far we have come! Nichols and McChesney dug up a 1978 Justice Rehnquist (!) quote citing Chief Justice John Marshall: "A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of creation confers upon it, either expressly, or as incidental to its very existence." I'll bet they didn't find that quote in any of the strict constructionist bibles so popular out on the talk show circuit. (BTW, two other sayings on corporate personhood that I love: first, and I hope the source will step forward because I can't remember where I read it, to the effect that if a corporation is a person, how can anyone own one without being a slave-holder? And, this quote from the late, great Bob Edgar: "I'll believe corporations are people when one of them has a colonoscopy.")

Democracy is not being redeemed at the state level either, although there is encouragement in numerous successful state ballot initiatives instructing elected representatives to vote in favor of a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. But there is a lot of "dollarocracy" between these initiatives and a ratified Constitutional amendment. (That's what makes interim action by the Federal Communications Commission to at least compel disclosure about who is really paying for all those anonymous political ads on TV. The FCC has the authority to do this now. What better time for a real down-payment on campaign reform? See my April 2012 Benton Blog, "Real Disclosure for Real" Democracy" for more about this.) More telling about what is happening in the states is that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is about to throw itself a 40th birthday party. This is the group that has been wining, dining and otherwise entertaining state legislators and sending them home with model draft legislation to downsize (when they can't eliminate ) and deregulate government, making voting more difficult, and generally representing the special interests instead of the public interest. Large numbers of these bills have been passed. Our shrunken journalistic corps didn't really catch on to the story until after the Center for Media Democracy, Common Cause, and Bill Moyers got on their trail and brought ALEC to public attention. A number of important ALEC members couldn't stand the blinding light of public exposure and turned in their membership cards. But the birthday party is still on, and those departing members are finding other avenues for their influence-peddling.

I have argued for years that a cancerous monopolization of our media, almost always blessed by a compliant FCC, lies at the root of democracy's distress. Huge media mergers have to be financed and that requires "economies" "which meant closed newsrooms, fired journalists, and near-death for investigative journalism itself. This is not only what happened to radio, TV and cable; McChesney and Nichols show how monopolization and dollarocracy have come to plague the Internet, too" that wonderful world of democratic potential that so many thought would be somehow exempt from the encroachment of the gatekeepers. The authors assert convincingly that the Internet has not only failed to resolve the crisis of journalism; it has made the crisis worse. But they also know it does not have to be this way"if we grapple with issues like the Open Internet, new ideas for online journalism, and the digital divide now, before it is too late. Each passing day makes the problem less soluble.

The authors argue for far-reaching democratic reform. Others would be happy with more incremental progress. Read the book and decide for yourselves. Whatever you decide, do something.

This post originally appeared on the Benton Foundation blog. Reposted with permission.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Empowering Small Donors

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