Red, White, and Blurred
October 9, 2012 | by Mary Jean Babic
It used to be that citizens participated in the political process primarily through voting. But is that enough anymore? Does it take deep pockets, or perhaps tweeting to thousands of followers? From finances to Facebook, we look at the new forces that are shaping the face of elections, and whether a single vote counts for anything, anymore.
A schizophrenic democracy. That’s what Communication Studies Professor Scott Campbell calls American politics these days, referring to the divergent trends of money and technology. On the one hand, there is what he calls the “fairly undemocratic movement” of super PACS (political action committees). These organizations raise unlimited money from wealthy citizens and are free to spend it on anything, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court threw out longstanding restrictions on corporate and union campaign spending, on grounds that such contributions are a form of free speech. On the other hand, there’s a wealth of new online technology that allows would-be voters to absorb, create, and distribute information and provides, according to Campbell, “a very beneficial way to allow citizens to be more active and engaged, and to have a voice in public affairs.”
The ways in which these two forces are shaping the face of politics—or not—are on the minds and in the research papers of the College’s faculty and alumni. Do Americans need deep pockets to have a voice in politics anymore? Or is political participation achievable just by “liking” something on Facebook?
Power to the People?
Money has always talked in politics, but ordinary talk between ordinary people is hugely influential as well. Digital technology, Campbell believes, allows more of those crucial conversations to take place.
“When we think of the public sphere, traditionally we think of town hall meetings and people in coffee shops having conversations, and that’s still there,” Campbell says. “But we have this new, added layer where people are bumping into one another and engaging and expressing their views,” he says. “I think that’s very constructive.”
Campbell’s research points to cell phones, for example, as a way to connect “with the political process and civic affairs.” On the last day of the 2008 presidential campaign, he notes, AT&T reported a record-breaking number of text messages. “That’s not a coincidence. People were texting about the election, getting citizens out to vote. A cell phone has become a very prominent tool of political communication.”
Online social activism has given rise to the term “clicktivism,” sometimes derisively referred to as “slacktivism,” implying an unearned sense of virtue for a political act that takes almost no effort and never had much chance of making a difference in the first place. But in Campbell’s view, small, everyday acts such as adding comments to an article, liking Facebook posts, signing an online petition, or forwarding a video add up to significant civic involvement.
“It’s important not to overlook how meaningful it is for people to feel like they are citizens, that they know something,” he says. “Reading the paper makes people feel efficacious. It makes them feel qualified to be part of our democracy.” A sense of capability is a strong predictor of political participation, he says—not only of one’s own ability but of others’ as well. “It’s important for people to feel that their fellow citizens collectively can make a difference,” he says.
In an era when an unprecedented amount of money is flowing into the political process, more people engaging online might increase that sense of being able to make a difference.
But Michael Traugott, a fellow LSA professor of communication studies, isn’t optimistic that new media can do much to level the playing field in what he calls a “system that’s completely broken down.”
A single person is “relatively powerless” in electoral politics, says Traugott. While a voter can cast a ballot, the Electoral College’s winner-take-all system* means millions of people are effectively left out of the process (think of Al Gore winning the popular vote, but George W. Bush becoming president). Countering that systematic flaw with social media or online advocacy doesn’t fix the problem, in his view.
Traugott does agree that online media are great for mobilization—getting people out to the polls after the choir has been preached to—and Barack Obama raised half a billion dollars online in 2008, much of it in small donations. But to “convert” voters, as Traugott puts it, especially those all-important swing voters in swing states, campaigns need to bombard the airwaves with ads that pop up on voters while watching TV, not just on websites on which voters may or may not click.
Major campaigns know this. Between 75 and 80 cents of every dollar is spent on advertising, and despite the rise of the Internet, television is still a campaign’s biggest expense. Certainly online ads are cheaper, and might go viral, but Traugott doesn’t think they’re as effective. Thanks to the Nielsen Company’s audience measurement systems, better demographic data is available for television, allowing campaigns to target the elusive, pivotal swing voters.
Online media might not be the fix-all, end-all for problems in the political system, but it still can have a powerful effect. For one Michigan alumnus, money and technology intersect in a space that could give rise to a better-informed citizenry.
Empowered by Information
As outreach coordinator for the Center for Responsive Politics, Evan MacKinder (’08) sees firsthand the impact of money on politics—and how the Internet can put that information into the hands of voters. The nonpartisan center posts its research on money in politics at OpenSecrets.org.
“Citizens should have access to this information, because money has a voice,” says MacKinder. Whether Tea Partier or Occupy protester, citizens have a common interest in transparent, responsive government, he says. “They should be able to follow the money themselves.”
MacKinder hired on shortly before the 2010 Citizens United decision. Since then, the center’s research has shown that few publicly traded corporations are putting money into super PACs. The lion’s share of contributions flows from private corporations, owned by wealthy individuals who have been politically active for a long time, such as Harold Simmons, a Texas billionaire showering millions on super PACs devoted to defeating Obama.
Super PACs are technically forbidden from coordinating directly with candidates for federal office, but MacKinder says that many operatives running super PACs once worked as high-level staff members for the candidates and “are so attuned to the candidates themselves...that in effect they share the same brain.” And sometimes the same lawyers, advisors, and office space. The New York Times reported in February that a number of political consulting groups working either for Romney’s campaign or Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting him, occupy the same office suite in Alexandria, Virginia. TargetPoint Consulting, one of the suite’s tenants, counts both the Romney campaign and the super PAC as clients.
Another notable finding from the center is that, Obama’s small-contribution success notwithstanding, “a very tiny elite of the population are funding elections,” MacKinder says. In 2010, just one-quarter of one percent of the population gave a donation of $200 or more, delivering about 68 percent of all money that flowed to federal candidates and committees, according to the center. “That illustrates how small a pool [of influencers] this is,” MacKinder says.
With discoveries like these, it seems cynicism would be an inevitable occupational hazard of MacKinder’s job. But he finds his work energizing. Every day he engages with people of all political stripes—academics, reporters, students, activists— on the center’s work. He also monitors discussion among the center’s 45,000 Facebook followers.“ A lot of folks are angry about this information,” says MacKinder, “but many are just so grateful to stumble onto our website and see what’s there. You can see them [become] more empowered with every fact they get, and that’s a great thing.”
Generating Content, and a Generation’s Votes
One interesting effect of current political trends is the way third-party actors are influencing major-party candidates in ways not seen before, says Michael Heaney, an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science.
Super PACs themselves, as much as they might “share a brain” with the candidates they are technically forbidden from coordinating with, can act independently in a way that risks undercutting the very campaigns they ostensibly support. This spring, for example, billionaire J. Joe Ricketts considered running ads that attacked Obama by resurrecting the 2008 controversy about his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Republican strategists themselves were alarmed by the plans, worried that personal attacks on Obama would backfire. No such ads ultimately ran, but they raised a worrisome specter.
The Internet offers another kind of third-party power. Think of the Obama Girl and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” videos that went viral in 2008, as did First Love’s “Game On,” championing Rick Santorum. On one hand, campaigns love this stuff; their candidate gets buzz for free. But campaigns crave control, which is precisely what they don’t have over user-generated content, even though candidates are held accountable for what’s done in their names. So if a famous rapper or winsome Christian sisters sing your praises, great. The Ku Klux Klan? Not so much.
Yet no matter how technology and money may be influencing people, the truth remains that relatively few people do much with the influence.
Important as it is, large numbers of Americans don’t vote. Turnout in presidential elections has ranged between 53 and 64 percent of eligible voters, according to the United States Election Project of George Mason University. In midterm elections and local races, turnout often is much lower, sometimes even into the single digits for mayors and city council members. Young voters can be especially fickle. In 2008, voters ages 18 to 29 turned out in relatively high numbers—about 51 percent—largely out of enthusiasm for Obama’s campaign on the themes of hope and change. But by 2010, less than 21 percent bothered to vote in the mid-term elections.
Todd Flynn wants to change those statistics.
Flynn, an LSA junior majoring in political science, chairs Voice Your Vote, a nonpartisan group that works to persuade students to exercise the power they command as a voting bloc. Volunteers register students, organize get-out-the-vote efforts, and help first-time voters sort out complications such as out-of-state balloting. One of the group’s main events is Dorm Storm, when volunteers go door-to-door with registration forms to make the process as easy as possible. During another event, Diag Days, they set up informational tables on the Diag. The group’s goal is straightforward: “We want everyone to vote.”
Flynn, active in Voice Your Vote since coming to campus, believes passionately in the power of voting, despite super PACs, despite Citizens United, despite cynicism and polarization. “If you could turn around enough people to vote, then the idea that ‘my vote doesn’t count’ will lose its bearing,” he says.
Young people, especially, often don’t appreciate the stake they have in elections, whose winners determine not only things that matter to them at the moment, such as student loan rates and tuition costs, but realities they’ll confront within a few short years, such as economic policies, health care, and taxes.
When he confronts students who are apathetic or cynical about the money flowing into politics, Flynn urges them to vote for people who would work on campaign finance reform or champion a constitutional amendment to overturn the laws they find most noxious. Non-participation, in his view, is not a credible form of activism.
“The country will best be governed,” he says, “when the most citizens influence its governance.”
That would really give another meaning to the term “citizens united.”
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