Stop Slogan-Voting. Stop Hate-Voting. Stop Being Manipulated. Part 2: High Dollar Campaigns = Government of the Puppet People

There are two ways to campaign for office: hire a consultant or do it yourself.

Consultants cost money; lots of it. They earn this money by raising money. Like lawyers who work on contingency, campaign consultants take home a piece of the money action that the campaign generates. They also run high-dollar, glitzy campaigns that are long on smears, slogans and invective-filled one-liners, all designed to pound home the party line while hiding the actual party agenda.

Candidates who are recruited by political parties get saddled up with a party-approved consultant early on. The candidate signs a contract with the consultant and that ends their contribution to the thinking end of the campaign process. From then on, their job is to meet voters and repeat what they’ve been told to say.

The weird part is that we wonder why they “betray” us once they’re in office. They don’t betray anybody. We just misunderstand. In truth, these party loyalists who ignore the needs of their constituents to line the pockets of the people who paid for their campaigns are keeping their word. This is what they were recruited and created to do.

The other way to campaign, do it yourself, has mostly passed from fashion. A few dinosaurs like me cling to it and manage to get elected, but we’re definitely old school, remnants of an almost forgotten past. Do it yourselfers have to think their way through a campaign. They’ve got to raise their own campaign funds, explain themselves to the voters, design their own media and decide for themselves what they believe.

The best thing about do-it-yourself campaigns is that they are a kind of natural selection process. Genuine idiots can’t get themselves elected in a competitive do-it-yourself campaign. They just don’t have the brains, the tactical sense or the communication skills to become elected officials.

Old-style do-it-yourself campaigns didn’t necessarily produce a bi-annual crop of Washingtons and Lincolns. Those campaigns could be heavy on the schlock and name recognition, light on the issues. Here in Oklahoma, we elected candidates to office named Cowboy Pink Williams and Happy Camp. Will Rogers ran for office decades after the well-known humorist was laid in his grave, and Wilbur Wright managed to get elected to statewide office and then almost impeached, presumably because voters thought he invented the airplane.

None of these colorful candidates would have gotten through in today’s big-money climate. They were elected simply because uninformed voters picked a name on the ballot that sounded familiar. The Cowboy Pinks won when the competition was light.

In a rough and tumble do-it-yourself campaign, and there were lots of them, the best candidate usually won. By best I mean the candidate who could think on his or her feet, learn from mistakes and think tactically under pressure. That doesn’t mean they were the nicest, but in a surprisingly effective way, these races usually elected people who had what it takes to govern.

Money-based consultant-run campaigns, on the other hand, eliminate election based on familiar names by the simple expedient of dumping so much money and advertising on the race that voters become aware that this Wilbur Wright didn’t invent anything. Unfortunately, the money obscures the candidate just as effectively as voter indifference ever could have, and it does it in a far more dangerous way. The old way put a sprinkling of buffoons in office with every passing election. But they weren’t puppets, and they did care about this country. Their damage was limited to their particular office and their personal lack of talent.

Today, instead of a familiar name, we elect a familiar face. The difference is that, while the Cowboy Pinks decided to run and got elected on their own, today’s familiar faces were recruited and are controlled by outside forces. We elect people on the basis of celebrity and how they make us feel in ads that are so dishonest they could never rise to the level of schlock. We don’t know these people. Our votes aren’t any more informed than they were in the days of Cowboy Pink and Happy Camp. They are just more maliciously manipulated.

We are encouraged by advertising to imagine candidates in a certain way that usually has no relation to the people they are. It’s a skillful sort of propaganda that uses advertising that is heavy on long-shots of the candidate walking across the prairie while a lone trumpet plays soulfully and an actor with a resonant voice tells us that the candidate is a series of adjectives that add up to exactly nothing. We come away from these ads, thinking we’ve been told something when in fact all that’s happened is that we’ve been induced into feeling something. We take this feeling and attach it to the candidate. In this way, today’s political advertising induces us to create the candidate in our own minds and then vote for whatever we imagine him or her to be.

These ads, combined with orchestrated internet smears and other propaganda designed to enrage and terrify us to the point that we can’t think, lead us to vote the way the consultant wants. We think we’re voting for a candidate. We’re actually voting for a trumpet solo.

The Cowboy Pinks, Happy Camps and Wilbur Wrights more or less blundered into office, then bumbled around once they got there. There’s nothing blundering or bumbling about the verbal blood baths we call campaigns today. It takes a lot of talent to manipulate the electorate and there’s no lack of it in these consultant-driven races. But this talent is not directed toward representing the people or the good of the country. It’s focused on servicing the needs of the people who paid for the consultants, advertising, polls and think tanks who created this campaign engine in the first place.

Stop and think for a minute. Why should it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get elected to an Oklahoma House seat that pays $38,400 in salary and represents around 35,000 people? Who would invest that kind of money in something with such a minuscule return?

The answer is that the return is not minuscule; at least not for the money men behind the scenes. They’re not making an investment. They’re certainly not “supporting” a candidate. They’re buying. And what they are buying is control of our government. In exchange for a few hundred thousand dollars they get control of a vote on a budget that runs into the billions; on other votes on bond issues that will put hundreds of millions of dollars through their companies; on tax breaks, government give aways and competitive advantages that, over time, become an endless river of government money.

Why would corporations in Florida and New York, Texas and Mexico care about who represents a single senate or house district in Gotebo Oklahoma? Because money is fluid; it flows from one place to the other. That, and because these legislative seats are the seed corn for bigger crops. They supply the candidates when it’s time to re-load at the national level, where the money goes from huge to unimaginable.

President Obama is an example. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1997,  ran for and was elected to the United States Senate in 2004, and then four years later, to President of the United States. His example is extreme, but it is of a type that is re-played continuously all over the nation. State legislatures are the seedbed of national politics. This process of selecting/grooming/electing candidates who will act as operatives for money interests now and into the future is what the two political parties actually do. It is, as I said in Part 1, about power.

Money spent to gain control of the taxing/regulating/treaty-making/military-sending/contract-giving/appropriating power of government is smart money. It is also destructive, amoral, uncaring money. It harms our country. It endangers our democracy. It threatens our future as a great nation and a free people.

It’s a simple equation:   High Dollar Campaigns = Government of the Puppet People

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Speaking Swahili in Oklahoma

I was elected to public office for the first time in 1980; the same year John Lennon was murdered and the Moral Majority became a major player in American politics. The country was reeling from the capture of our citizens at the American Embassy in Iran. There were long lines to buy gasoline and interest for a new car could easily cost 15% for someone with good credit. The Cold War and its mind-numbing threat of universal nuclear annihilation hung like the sword of Damocles over all of us.

These were not halcyon days. There was trouble in the world then, as now. But America was still the manufacturing power of the world. There were jobs, good jobs, that could support a family, and a college education was still affordable without living in penal servitude to student loans for the rest of your life.

The biggest difference for me personally between then and now is the difference in the people I encounter on my job as a legislator. Back then, if I wanted to convince a fellow legislator to vote either for or against a piece of legislation, I would talk to them about how the legislation would affect the people of Oklahoma. If I could convince the legislator that the bill in question would hurt people, he or she would vote against it. If they believed it would help people, they would vote for it.

If I try to talk to my colleagues today about how a piece of legislation will affect the people of the state, they look at me as if I was speaking Swahili. Once in a while one of them will turn his head away and not look me in the face, but that’s as close as you can come with today’s politicians to get them to consider how the votes they cast affect the people they represent.

In today’s politics, the only way to persuade a legislator to change their vote is to talk to them about how it will affect their chances of re-election, or how some special interest group feels about the bill. I won’t say that is the only thing they care about, but it is the only thing that will motivate them to change their actions. Even that falls to the way side when party loyalty is in play. Nothing in today’s political world is allowed to trump doing what your party tells you to do.

As with all blanket statements concerning people, there are exceptions. I know a small number of legislators in both parties who will step out and cast their votes based on the way a piece of legislation will affect the people they represent. Some of these people are women, some are men. The Republicans and Democrats in this group are about evenly divided.

It hurts me to say this but it is true; you are just as likely to find a pro-choice politician who will bravely stand up for what they believe as you will one who is pro-life.

This doesn’t happen because all elected officials are evil. A small number of the people I work with are craven opportunists who genuinely do not care about anyone or anything except their own ambitions. But the vast majority of them are good people who were put in office by political machines who recruited them to run, gave them their campaign funds, told them what their positions were based on polls and their political party‘s sell-lines, put out their campaign ads and organized their victory parties.

These elected officials are not representatives of the people in their districts. They are operatives for political parties who have themselves become consortiums of special interests.

They are so utterly out of their depth once they get into office that they fall for every bit of manipulation and flattery (and there is an endless supply of both for the winner in any campaign for public office) that comes their way. They are confused, overwhelmed and, like most people who are in over their heads and trying to hide it, easily angered and given to pomposity.

Most of them signed up to run for office because they had some notion that they could “make a difference” or because of vague beliefs about culture war issues. But by the time they’ve been processed and groomed into a winning candidate, they’ve drunk so much political kool-aid that they think people who talk to them about things like the common good and what’s best for ordinary people are naive lightweights.

A “tough” vote in this legislative environment is not a vote where the legislator is trying to figure out what is the right thing to do. A “tough” vote is one that catches him or her between two competing special interests. The toughest “tough” votes are the ones where they get caught between the power brokers who own them and the lies they told their constituents.

Legislators who are faced with one of these toughest of the “tough” votes tend to become fearful, petulant, bitter and easily enraged.

After that, anyone who tries to convince them that they need to cast their votes on what will be best for the people they represent would be just as effective if they really were speaking Swahili.

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