The American message wars

Opinion by

The most common weapon in the battle of American politics is the message. A candidate’s policy positions, record, and personality are secondary to the political message uniting them. In theory it’s a simple articulation of the candidate’s position, but in reality it’s usually just a mix of political marketing and rhetoric: visceral ideology disguised as common sense. This is the logic of the message war, accepted with equal dogmatism by both parties. Money buys the attention of the American people.

The age of the message war is increasingly defined by the free reign of the corporation in political financing, especially after this year’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allowed for unlimited donations from 527s (anonymous corporate “non-profit” donors). In this era of mass politics, the message cycle, unlike the election cycle, is truly never-ending.

The aim of corporate conservatism is corporate profit, which is generally thought of as hindered by regulation. As a result, corporate interests formulate a simple political message, which sounds inherently American and democratic: government is trying to control us, and “we, the people” want the power back. This is a significant obstacle for any government regulation policy.

The interests of Democrats, on the other hand, are more diverse. There’s a massive asymmetry between their message and the corporatist creed. The top Democratic donors are found in the ranks of unions, lawyers, women’s rights groups, and pro-choice groups, to name a few. Their common goal is to tax and spend in the interests of the people.

This setup favours corporate interests. As long as Democrats have to face anti-government politicians who can simply respond with a resounding, visceral call to give the power back to the people, they will be fighting an uphill battle. Paradoxically, the only way Democrats can generate equal force is by asking for tainted money and compromising their principles.

While battles in many other Western democracies are fought over which interests the government should work for, Americans are fighting to keep government alive. Democrats have recently been reduced to vaguely asking voters to “hope” that they can “change” things. These backward-looking appeals inevitably imply that Democrats want “more government.” Simultaneously, the corporate message attacks every facet of the Democratic position, every policy point and ideological implication.

The basic anti-government assumptions have been proven wrong by more socioeconomically robust nations, like Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. A “smaller” government is not a better government. But you’d never know it by looking at America where, to quote President Clinton, “The era of big government is over.”

Right now the corporate interests have a monopoly on the American political imagination. Until corporate spending in American politics ceases, voters will be afraid to vote in their own interest. Any semblance of “Democrats versus Republicans” will turn even more into “politics versus entropy.”