Visiting Authors Examine ‘Dollarocracy’

Robert McChesney and John Nichols, the authors of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Complex is Destroying America, visited Portland State on Thursday to discuss their book. They spoke with the Vanguard before giving a presentation in Smith Memorial Student Union to about 50 people.

“We [the U.S.] no longer meet the minimum requirements to qualify as a democracy,” they argued.

“We have a system that is now defined more by one dollar, one vote than by one person, one vote,” said McChesney, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation. Together the two cite the Citizens United 2010 Supreme Court decision as one of the most significant contributing factors to what they call “dollarocracy.” The ruling maintained that political spending is protected under the First Amendment as a form of free speech.

“The CU decision essentially unleashed spending by billionaires on our campaigns and made that spending potentially anonymous and unaccountable,” McChesney said.

The decision, according to PSU assistant professor of political science David Johns, “reinforces the unequal political influence of citizens and groups of citizens based on their wealth.” He explained that the CU case increased the influence of the wealthy on the electoral process, “distorting it until it resembles the distorted distribution of wealth in the United States.”

According to McChesney, the authors’ book is the first to track the amount of money spent on the 2012 presidential elections. “The general theory was that about 6 billion dollars was spent by both parties and all their independent supporters,” Nichols said. “But what we determined, what was actually spent, was a total of more than 10 billion dollars.”

Nichols suggested that the greater inflow of corporate money into politics “can actually shift the election process,” especially at the state level. The two found that 4 billion of the 10 billion dollars spent on elections in 2012 was at the state level.

By way of example, Nichols described a municipal election, “which often [has] 10 or 12 percent turnout,” where someone is voted into the responsibility of managing a multi-billion dollar budget. He said that in a close race, “you get a mandate from only about 6 or 7 percent of the population, but 94 percent didn’t vote.”

The authors see “dollarocracy” as a systematic effort to make the government work more for corporations than for people. Corporate money in politics, McChesney said, is “undermining the ability of elections.”

“Elections are the one moment where everyone is the same, when Phil Knight and the people who clean toilets at Nike offices have the same power,” he said. “That’s always scared people with great wealth.” He argued that democratic elections are a threat to corporate influence.

“Wealth has become more and more concentrated in the United States,” Johns said, “and this great inequality has a profound effect on politics…those with great wealth have a disproportionate ability to write the rules in a way that benefits them.”

Dollarocracy is not the first book that McChesney and Nichols have penned together. They examined the media in their 2010 book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, and maintain that the press plays a role in the political circumstances they’ve observed.

“It’s not just money and politics [contributing to dollarocracy], but the disappearance of credible journalism to counter the influence of the money,” Nichols said at their talk. Both suggest that media has lost its bite and has ceased to keep corporate power in check.

“There are dramatically fewer newspaper reporters,” Nichols said. “Television news programs shave down content to make room for advertisements.”

“The dominant vehicle by which we communicate about politics today is through advertising,” he continued. “And [advertisements], by their very nature, are designed to give a false impression.

“We’ve ended up with a politics that is deeply disappointing to most people. Not just because of the money but because of the media.”

Nichols argued that media has become dominated by a “false dialogue managed by very wealthy people,” meaning real issues that matter to ordinary people get left out of the political conversation. “And then people believe the system is so rigged against them, so they don’t vote,” he continued.

To counteract “dollarocracy,” the authors call for a group of amendments to the Constitution. McChesney said that the first of these would ensure that “money is not speech and corporations are not people.”

The authors urge PSU students, faculty and staff—as well as young people at large—to get involved. “Understand that almost nothing big has happened in this country without young people getting engaged,” Nichols said.

“What we’re handing [younger generations] right now is an unacceptable infrastructure of democracy. It doesn’t work well,” he added.
“We need young people to come in to rip it up and make big changes.”