Media: Following Knucklehead Smith And Not His Ventriloquist
Call me naïve. Yesterday, Willard Rmoney demonstrated again to most people’s satisfaction, if not their utter delight that he is a terrible candidate. And that he is evidently running the worst, most incompetent campaign ever. He put a 1200 member, virtually all white, virtually all male, virtually all business suit wearing audience in a 60,000 seat cavern in Detroit, giving visual power to his lack of support, its homogeneity, its really being the 1%. And he concluded that televised disaster with a double whammy: again making idiotic remarks about the size of Michigan’s trees and letting the world know that his wife drives not one, but two Cadillacs. How could anyone think this would help in Michigan or in the nation as a whole?
But wait. I’ve concluded that this kind of analysis is really unfair to Willard Rmoney. And that it misses the point. Why? I think this analysis is a fossil. That it’s outdated. It depends on my clinging to the erroneous idea that the nomination process is still about the candidates and about their policy positions. While that may have been the case before Citizens United, 2012 is proving that’s no longer so.
It appears that this election isn’t really about Willard Rmoney. Or the other potential presidential candidates. Or any of the other rich white men running for the Republican nomination. No. This isn’t about these well dressed dummies, it’s about the few, now unrestrained, billionaire ventriloquists.
If I don’t like speeches made by Charlie McCarthy or Knucklehead Smith, I don’t blame them. How could I? I don’t find fault with them. I don’t say they are very bad dummies. Or that they have very bad ideas. In fact, they’re very good dummies. They do their job as dummies reliably and have for years. Willard Rmoney has been doing his job of being a candidate for years. No. When there’s a problem with the show, I look instead to Edgar Bergen or Paul Winchell. I look to the person who is in charge, the person pulling the levers, the person with the voice. If Willard Rmoney is doing things that are idiotic in Detroit, as he did yesterday, I need to look past him and look instead at the Super PAC and its donors. I have to remember where all of this is coming from. Who is in charge. If Edgar Bergin decides to be quiet, Charlie McCarthy is not going to speak. If the SuperPAC becomes disillusioned and sits on its wallet, Willard Rmoney will lapse into silence.
Before this year, before Citizens United it was possible for me to believe that the candidate’s persona was important because it allowed him or her to convey policy positions effectively. And the positions actually belonged to the candidate. The connection between campaign finance and what the candidate was saying was more veiled. Yes, candidates raised funds. Yes, they owed what we called “favors” to big donors, and they owed access to the big supporters. But the candidates and the parties managed to maintain the illusion that they themselves stood for something on their own. They might pander to certain groups for support. Yes. But they were determining the platform. It remained the convention not to look behind the green curtain because there were legal limits, statutory limits to how much policy and how access any one person (or any corporation) could buy. Politics before Citizens United was not conducted so that the richest people and corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money buying an election. There were limits. They were inadequate, but at least there was some limit. No longer. The Trad Media before Citizens United talked about the candidate’s positions, the candidate’s views, the candidate’s ideology. The dollars? The Trad Media talked about totals, how the candidates courted the funds with their positions.
In the post Citizens United world, it seems exactly the opposite: the people with funds can seek and find the candidates to say what they want said. And they do. If you have $10 million you can pretty much get a candidate to say what you tell him or her to say. And you can get the candidate to stay in the race until you lose interest. Or get bored. Or decide to buy access and positions from somebody else.
Let me repeat that for clarity: the Edgar Bergens, the Paul Winchells, the Koch Brothers, the Adelsons, the Friesses, the few billionaires who fund the SuperPacs have the real voice here. They have the controls. They are deciding what is said. They are speaking. If they stop writing checks, the candidates will be completely silenced. The candidates realize this. But the candidates are just dummies. Empty suits if you if will. They have no inherent substance. They are just the dummies, the devices that allow the show to go on.
Unless the Trad Media are simply tools of the same rich, powerful people, this means to me that the Trad Media need to change their election coverage. Radically. The scrutiny, the investigations, the reportage, the analysis needs to focus far less on the candidates and far, far more on the ventriloquists. There’s no reason for hundreds of reporters to follow around Knucklehead Smith on buses and airplanes and make the same report from the empty Ford Field. That’s a job that could be done by 4 reporters with cameras, or fewer. We’d be far better served if a few of the reporters traveling with the candidates got off the bus and the gravy train and pursued the ventriloquists.
Is that going to happen? I'm not betting on it.