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The Shame of Our Campaigns, a primer

Editor’s note: The Sacto Politco’s “Shame of Our Campaigns” series was inspired by famed muckraker Lincoln Steffens and his “Shame of the Cities” series a century ago.

Wisconsin Democrat William Proxmire served as U.S. Senator from 1957 to 1989 and is most remembered for three things. First, he replaced the infamous Joseph McCarthy. Second, he invented “The Golden Fleece Award” to spotlight wasteful federal spending and which The Washington Post then called “the most successful public relations device in politics today.”

The third is that Federal Election Commission staff still reference Proxmire as that rare candidate who spent next to nothing on his campaigns and raised even less. In fact, a recent FEC records search of Proxmire found just two FEC filings. These showed during his 1976 campaign that he spent a grand total of $1,808 against collected donations of just $597.

Nothing close to this happens today. As pointed out by Reece Ellis in a 2019 article, even incumbent senators running unopposed in fiery red states like Wyoming will raise and spend $7 million. This is because today members of Congress and the White House aren’t expected to raise money for just their own re-election, but to also support their national parties and the monstrously large political industrial complex.

As seen above, the total cost of 2020 federal elections is estimated to reach nearly $14 billion. This was double what was spent in 2016, which was double the total in 2000. This quadrupling of political fundraising is just one of three shames of our modern campaigns, which The Sacto Politico is dedicating this issue to examine in greater detail.

The three are the Shame of Campaign Finance, the Shame of Media Apathy, and the Shame of Local Activism. To save our democracy from a catastrophic system failure, all three must change. The presidency of Donald Trump nearly led to this kind of failure, but these problems all predated Trump’s 2016 victory. Thus they remain ticking time bombs for even a post-Trump system.

The Shame of Campaign Finance

Most voters recognize the problem of money in politics. But given the exponential growth of the political industrial complex this cycle, the degree of the problem can shock even relatively close political observers. In this issue, we more deeply explore the surprising fundraising and spending practices of two Congressional incumbents from Sacramento County.

But like the parable of the blind men who touch different parts of an elephant, these stories are just part of a much bigger picture. The scary reality is despite the growth in individual donations pioneered by Bernie Sanders, there is no catching up with the totals donated by the corporate and elite donors who dominate our system in a way unmatched since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

In their 2017 Harvard Business School paper “Why Competition in the Political Industry is Failing America,” Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter observed:

“Our political system isn’t broken… The real problem is that our political system is no longer designed to serve the public interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industry allies.”

Add to this mix the vested interests in the status quo of the vast industry of politics, and you get what’s called the political industrial complex. This is a gargantuan multipronged entity that requires constant feeding and loyalty. This means massive fundraising to pay for all the consultants, SuperPACs, attorneys, pollsters, marketers and staff that each national party and their candidates invest in an ever-escalating battle.

And to keep the funds flowing, this requires huge amounts of what the Beltway calls “donor maintenance.” This is exactly what it sounds like: giving big donors the regular attention and results needed to keep their checkbooks open. This includes specific legislation, appointments, tax loopholes, regulatory relief and intercession on their behalf to lower fines and other penalties for breaking laws.

The degree of this Faustian bargain is most evident through how dependent many elected officials are on big donations from our most fined corporations. Take Sacramento Democratic Congressman Ami Bera. Through Oct. 31 of the 2019-20 election cycle, he accepted $377,000 in PAC donations from 106 corporations that have paid a whopping $114 billion in federal and state fines and penalties over the last two decades.

These Bera donors include some of our nation’s worst corporate citizens, with 19 corporate donors who have paid out more than $1 billion in fines and penalties each. This includes Citigroup ($25 billion in fines and penalties), Goldman Sachs ($13 billion), Boeing ($1.3 billion), PG&E ($1.1 billion) and Mylan ($1 billion) of 550% Epipen price-hike fame. (And the Epipen price hikes happened under the direction of then CEO Heather Bresch, who is U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s daughter.)

This problem goes beyond just Bera. These same 106 corporations gave more than $220 million during just the 2019-2020 cycle. On the other side of the ledger, they and their parent companies received a combined $54 billion in government subsidies over the last 20 years (not including any special tax breaks, loan guarantees, bond financing, bailout assistance or Covid-19 payroll protection money).

From a business perspective, that is a very successful rate of return. But our body politic would appear to be better served if eligibility for government subsidy programs and tax loopholes were tied to companies not exceeding a basic level of fines and penalties.

Without such a penalty, the American taxpayer has been forced to subsidize the nation’s worst corporate citizens for breaking our society’s laws in areas such as bribery, price-fixing, public and workplace safety, environment, shareholder protection, Medicare fraud, and mortgage fraud.

The Shame of Media Apathy

If some of this is new to you it’s likely because finding quality local public-interest political coverage to be increasingly rare. We can’t forget the mass media is among the primary beneficiaries of that $8 billion or so in campaign advertising this election cycle. Thus they are unlikely to dive too deeply into the shame of campaign finance.

In local markets, the timidity of media outlets is even more glaring. Given the vocal anger on both sides of the political divide, many outlets find it risky to publish critical political coverage too regularly. This is because they know even playing things factually down the middle can risk offending some segment of their dwindling audience. So they largely avoid it.

A good example was explored in a Sept. 4 Washington Post article titled “The QAnon problem facing local journalism this election season.” In the piece, a Knoxville, Tennessee editor explained the quandary his newsroom faced about whether or not to mention that two candidates on the primary ballot supported QAnon conspiracy theories. They ultimately published nothing and neither candidate advanced, but the editor admitted, “If anyone thinks this is going to vanish, they’re delusional... We’re going to have to tackle it at some point.”

A similar reluctance was seen earlier this year by the McClatchy chain – parent corporation of the Sacramento Bee – when it directed its 30 newspapers to not endorse in the 2020 presidential race unless both Biden and Trump sat for interviews with their editorial board. The chain said the decision only reflects the need for its papers to relentlessly focus on “local, local, local” news. But this suggests the choice of president has no local impact on pandemic policy, taxes, civility in our politics, and responding to extreme weather events resulting from climate change.

The desire of major newspapers to withdraw from major public issues is deeply disturbing. Can you imagine an editorial board deciding to not weigh in on the George Floyd shooting because the participants could not be interviewed? Plus, a review of the Sacramento Bee’s endorsements of statewide ballot propositions show examples in which no one on either side of those issues were directly interviewed or quoted.

Interestingly, the McClatchy chain’s “local, local, local” edict was not applied to the Sac Bee’s endorsement of Prop 16 on affirmative action. The Bee’s editorial linked its support for the proposition to the need to combat systemic racism as evidenced by the police shootings of Floyd and Breanne Taylor. Yet conspicuous in its absence was no mention of the still controversial local police shooting of Stephon Clark in 2018.

The Bee also glaringly violated its “local, local, local” mandate with its Sept. 28 article about California Congressional candidates with QAnon connections. This 1,500-word piece cited several candidates from around the state with QAnon connections; however, the one Sacramento-area Congressional candidate with QAnon and other far-right connections was never mentioned, even though this was well-reported nationally. (This candidate would get 43% of the vote, more than any of the other QAnon candidates mentioned in the story.)

Another example of this withdrawal from the political commons came when Sacramento’s Capitol Public Radio eschewed covering any of the local March primaries in their 2.5 million-person market. They told me the races were insufficiently competitive to cover. But their sense of news value was fairly sullied when first-time City Council candidate Katie Valenzuela overcame this news blackout to upset a two-term business-backed incumbent. Many wonder if the station’s reluctance to cover opposition to establishment incumbents was influenced by a desire to avoid aggravating establishment underwriters of their programs who have strong representation on their board.

Last, this media timidity toward politics can be seen in a lessening of journalistic hunger for a good public-interest, political news scoops. Take the exclusive in this issue about how the largest opioid companies have funneled more than $200,000 in the last decade to holders of Sacramento County’s two main Congressional seats. Before founding The Sacto Politico, I pitched the story several times as a news tip with all background research to every news outlet in Sacramento but received not one call or email back.

Beyond falling short of America’s once proud journalistic tradition, this retreat from solid political coverage has left our public more ill-informed than ever. This explains how the local QAnon Congressional candidate received 43% share of all ballots and 166,561 votes. Few in the area knew of his far-right connections because of either media apathy or timidity or both.

The Shame of Local Activism

Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley once apathetically whined, “Ehh, there’s nothing you can do about voter apathy.”

Naturally, most elected officials aren’t eager to encourage major changes to the electorate that put them in office. But no mystery exists how to combat voter apathy. You combat it with good candidates and smart, energetic local activism.

But in the Sacramento area, those most unhappy with the establishment’s status quo tend to practice the reverse of the saying “think globally, act locally.” They tend to invest more time on national campaigns and flipping seats and legislatures elsewhere rather than trying to recruit and support like-minded local challengers.

This applies to many local Progressive clubs, labor leaders and environmental groups. Speak optimistically to them about the opportunities to oust entrenched politicians, and a noticeable “you can’t fight city hall” reluctance quickly creeps in. This despite the examples of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Cori Bush in Missouri who showed the path for how to topple an incumbent while being outspent by millions of dollars.

But still many local progressives think the only way to beat an incumbent is by raising a million dollars. However, to raise a million dollars generally requires allying with the very sources of political money who are funding the incumbent and the dreaded political industrial complex. Hardly a good formula for change.

Let’s conclude with this word from the patron saint of muckrakers, Lincoln Steffens. In his “The Shame of the Cities,” he said when he set out to report on corruption in turn-of-the-20th-century America, he expected the politicians to be the villains. Instead, his real finding was:

“The people are not innocent. That is the only ‘news’ in all the journalism of these articles... In ‘The Shame of Minneapolis,’ the truth was put into the title; it was the Shame of Minneapolis; not of the Ames Administration, not the Tweeds, but of the city and its citizens.”

This remains applicable today. For whatever hurdles the political industrial complex and a neutered media create, our democracy is never rudderless, even when not working for most voters. This leaves it to the voters to wrest control back if they wish a true change of direction.

Some other articles in The Shame of Our Campaigns series:

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