The 2012 presidential election drew more political and financial influence from U.S. corporations than any other in history. It soon became clear that it wasn’t the political candidates, their advisory teams, the media or the public who steered the course of 2012’s political discourse, but a handful of powerful political action committees and their armory of corporate sponsors. A barrage of divisive campaign ads sent a clear message, albeit one that wasn’t intended: corporate interest has become the most resounding voice in U.S. politics. We’ve been conditioned to vote not for the candidate who shares our beliefs, but to support the candidate who promises to acquiesce to the private sector. In this sense, corporate and political objectives have become virtually inseparable. A vote for one is simply a vote for the other by proxy.
Of course, the deluge of commercial speech in the 2012 election was a direct result of the Supreme Court’s historic 2010 Citizens United decision, which removed spending limits by independent campaign supporters, essentially allowing corporations to engage in limitless political fundraising efforts as long as they didn’t work directly with those candidates. Total outside spending during the 2012 election reached an astounding $1.1 billion, according to a report by OpenSecrets. Super PAC spending alone was $465 million, according to an October report by the Wall Street Journal. Compare these figures to the 2010 Midterms — the first election to occur after Citizens United, where spending by interest groups accounted for only about $300 million, already more than four times 2006 Midterm election spending — and it’s clear Citizens United was a watershed for what’s now become the election standard. Nearly half the money raised in the 2010 election was done so by only 10 groups. In 2012, the largest five Super PACs raised as much. The largest — Restore Our Future ($118 million), Priorities USA Action ($54 million) and American Crossroads ($41 million) — each reported campaign contributions and spending that would have dwarfed total campaigns in elections only a decade prior.
Corporations are incapable of participating in nuanced, balanced conversations. In fact, corporations only “talk” when it serves their bottom lines. With corporate speech now unchained in the political arena, the barons of U.S. enterprise have denigrated our political discourse with meaningless in-house patter that selectively appeals to faith, values and reason only when it serves their interests. The language of even the most vicious attack ads are simply profit motives couched in partisan politics or vague appeals to no-duh morality. Interest groups scare the public on the future of their jobs or the state of the country, hoping that by repeating these fears enough the dumbest will seek guidance from the messengers. They achieve consensus the same way they get anything else: by paying for it. Meanwhile, the actual messages under these tactics are clear: charity is anathema, taxes on the wealthy are an attack on free enterprise, and trickle-down economics works, despite decades of evidence that says otherwise.
In the best cases, their messages have resulted in comedy gold. Campaign for American Values PAC produced a hilarious piece of fear-mongering schlock in an ad that claimed “Obama is trying to force gay marriage on this country.” American Crossroads PAC ran an ad that claimed Obama’s “celebrity” persona had left a nation damaged by slacker aplomb. Things were just as ridiculous on the other side. Priorities USA Action, the largest of the pro-Obama Super PACs, famously ran an ad that said Romney was indirectly responsible for a woman’s death from cancer after her husband was laid off at a steel plant. Obama Super PAC American Bridge 21st Century flooded the airwaves with a series of stupid Big Bird ads, making Obama’s political directives seem frivolous by dint of association.
In the worse case, commercial language bypasses disseminating false information and attempts to threaten voters outright. David Siegel, billionaire CEO and Founder of Westgate Resorts, warned employees of mass layoffs if Obama was reelected. Mike White, CEO of industrial manufacturer Rite-Hite, threatened employees with “personal consequences” if Obama remained President. Jack DeWitt, CEO of Request Foods, wrote a missive in his company’s newsletter in which he urged his workers to vote for Romney. Arthur Allen of ASG Software Solutions suggested employees might lose their jobs if Obama was reelected.
Like it or not, this is the future of U.S. elections.