The Presidential Money Bowl

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 10/28/08

American elections are won not by the best qualified, the most educated, the more experienced, articulate, levelheaded, or intelligent candidate, but by the candidate who raises and spends the most money on political advertising. This reality has proven itself over and over again in the vast majority of local, state, and national elections for the past two generations. This is the major obstacle standing between the United States and democracy—the fact that the real election, the Money Bowl, takes place well before the balloting in November.

John McCain

This year’s Money Bowl winner, according to media reports, is Barack Obama, who broke presidential campaign fundraising records in August by raising $66 million, then more than doubled that number in September, raising an additional $150 million. So far, Obama has raised more than a half billion dollars in campaign contributions. If Obama wins the election, it will not be because he was the better candidate, but because he was able to buy enough corporate media time to respond to, and ultimately drown out, his opponent’s factually dubious attack ads.

Checkbook democracy

The better candidate has a chance of winning—and maybe by enough of a margin to overwhelm voter caging and other now traditional GOP election fraud tactics—not because he is the better candidate, which he is, but because he is the better-financed candidate. Hence, we have the historical anomaly: the corporate candidate, John McCain, as an outspent “underdog.”

There’s actually much more to this story. The Obama campaign didn’t just break records for funds raised. More importantly, it blew through all records for the number of hands actually signing checks or clicking mice, having registered more than three million campaign donors—most of them writing small checks averaging, according to the New York Times, less than $100. This is a new twist on our politics—checkbook democracy.

It still sucks, however, empowering the middle class over poor and working class voters who can’t afford to write checks in any amount. Ultimately this checkbook populism resembles a poll tax more than a democratic election. It is, however, a vast improvement over the old system of letting corporate interests and their PACs bid on candidates.

McCain’s uncounted fundraising

But there’s still more to this story. Obama’s fund-raising supremacy is actually a media-created myth. Once you take in-kind corporate contributions into account, the combined value of campaign resources and money received by the McCain/Palin campaign is actually larger than that received by the Obama/Biden campaign. Yes, the record has been broken, but once again it’s the GOP that has broken it.

Where my math differs from commonly accepted formulas reported in the media is that I’m counting the value of airtime donated to the McCain/Palin campaign by corporate-right media outlets such as Fox “News” and Clear Channel Communications. It goes like this: Try to watch Fox “News” for 30 minutes. A friend challenged me to do this. He himself was unable to endure. It’s not journalism by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not news. It’s nonstop, unabashed Obama-bashing punctuated by occasional edited clips struggling to catch a coherent Palin quote or an image of John McCain where he doesn’t look like he’s just come up from trapping rats in the basement.

Now move over to the radio dial and add a drug-cocktail-carbureted Rush Limbaugh and a few hundred local Viagra-powered Rush Mini-Mes into the mix, and you have a multimodal, 24-hour, corporate-sponsored McCain/Palin propaganda machine.

To be fair, you have to subtract from my formula the small change tossed to Obama by the talking ashtrays on Air America. What you are left with, however, is a massive campaign contribution that cuts out the middleman. Instead of lots of hands writing checks to allow the Obama campaign to buy media, McCain has Fox and hundreds of right-wing talk radio channels just turning over their airwaves.

Chilling with Palin’s peeps

I did more than watch 30 minutes of Fox. I left the somewhat safe confines of “liberal” Buffalo and drove up to politically reactionary Essex County—New York State’s mountainous little Alabama on the Alps. There I chatted, or more accurately, listened, as locals who got all of their “news” from Fox and talk radio channeled Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. The experience was more than frustrating—it was downright frightening.

Faces actually turned red with anger as people explained the immediacy of the threat that an America-hating Obama posed to the very survival of this great nation. It was like listening to an old dying pickup truck trying to start. “Bill Ayers…ACORN, Bill Ayers…ACORN—billayersacorn…billayersacorn…billayersacorn-corn-corn-corn-corn…”

The combination of glazed looks coupled with red-faced anger was frightening. But what’s more frightening, when talking to Bill’s minions and Rush’s “Dittoheads,” is their lack of any coherent political position. They don’t subscribe to any ideology. They espouse “small government,” when it comes to education, health, or protecting the environment—but support large government when they talk about funding the police state or the military-industrial complex. They chant “state’s rights” and “religious freedom” when it comes to teaching public school kids that God literally created the earth 4,000 years ago (and spread all those dinosaur bones and fossil fuels around to test our faith), yet the federal government reigns supreme when it comes to constutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage, even among states and religions that recognize it.

On social issues, black and poor teenagers having babies is abominable and evidence of parental failure. Upper class white kids getting pregnant are respecting the sanctity of life with the admirable support of their parents. Sarah Palin is the face of conservative social values even though a bipartisan investigation just found her to have acted unethically, and in a recent appearance of Saturday Night Live, she agreed to a sexually objectified script describing her as “way hotter in person.”

The inconsistencies seem boundless. Money for environmental protection is “socialism.” But a federally subsidized nuclear power industry is “good energy policy.” Money for education is “socialism,” but an expanded prison system to incarcerate the uneducated is “law and order,” unless the prisoners are Mexican, in which case they get to go home since we aren’t going to pay for their “free ride.” Deficits are bad, so let’s increase military spending and cut taxes—but let’s cut them only for those rich enough to be able to afford to pay them. And that Joe Lieberman—the only Democrat with integrity. And Israel? What a wonderful nation—that is, until the Rapture.

Not conservatives

I have conservative friends. They have a coherent ideology. I’m conservative on some issues, such as protecting the Bill of Rights. Fox’s Republican “talking points” don’t follow any identifiable ideological path. They’re not “conservative,” as self-described “liberals” would like to have us believe. That’s the wrong word. They don’t even smack of the self-interest that drove the Reagan agenda. These new school Republicans follow the talking points no matter where they go: Barack Obama is not qualified to be president, but Sarah Palin is. Any notion to the contrary is sexist. And Hillary is a bitch.

They’ll vote against their own economic interests—poor, uneducated, marginally employed folks voting to cut education funding while giving tax breaks to the rich.

This is a truly scary phenomenon—a large chunk of the nation’s voters don’t really have political beliefs one can argue with. They’re just followers. They believe in slogans rather than ideas. They’re not open to new ideas or arguments because the whole concept of an idea or an argument is alien.

I suspect most McCain/Palin supporters don’t support the ticket based on ideological or political positions. With McCain regularly changing positions, they really can’t. They’re not voting for or against any ideological belief—they’re just plain voting. They’re voting for “country first.” They’re voting for Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Brit Hume, and Alan Colmes (yes, Colmes). Fox and the mouth-breathers on talk radio have created a movement with an ideology crafted by the highest bidder. The only coherence I see as this Fox agenda twists and turns, slinking through the political landscape, is that it makes its every move in service to capital—to monied and corporate interests, whatever they may be, with social issues thrown in like peanut butter on a rat trap.

The uncharacteristic failure of this noise machine to lock up this year’s election stems from a perfect storm embodied by the collapse of the military, environmental, and economic agendas it serves, and by a near-historic competence and quality mismatch between presidential tickets. That, coupled with record-breaking grassroots fundraising by the Obama team, may very well overpower the Fox/Rush contribution, and possibly even overpower GOP voter disenfranchisement efforts.

Let’s make no mistake, however: It’s the Fox/Talk Radio Money Bowl (and a healthy dose of racism) that keeps this ridiculous McCain/Palin ticket in the game. If the Obama/Biden ticket does triumph, this election will indeed be historic for more reasons than the American media is ready to talk about.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State Collge. His previous Artvoice columns are available at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2008

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