Yesterday’s political news couldn’t have been more important. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a dramatic departure from established law, struck down regulations limiting corporate spending on political advertising, including much of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act.
This ruling is of enormous significance to Integralists and Evolutionaries, because it is about a meta-systemic realignment of the very political mechanisms through which citizens’ choices can shape public decisions.
An Integral Analysis of Money Politics & Media
Americans live in a virtual sea of advertising and public relations messages that are structured (scientifically reverse-engineered, in fact) to influence us outside our conscious awareness. Subliminally, these communications have enormous influence over our buying decisions, attitudes, and votes, even though we think we’re aware of them and are disregarding their influence. This applies equally to commercial and political messages. They influence people up and down the evolutionary scale, but are particularly compelling at earlier levels of development. And ads cost money.
Through the interconnections between media saturation (we live in a virtual, mediated world most of our waking hours) and scientific advertising and PR, along with political donations, lobbying, and spin, guided by political polling, Nielsen ratings, and market research, the ultimate power in the United states tends to be an intertwined meta-marketplace. Some players are certainly more skillful than others, and at each moment the state of Americans’ collective interiors will resonate more powerfully with some messages than others. So advertising science remains an art, but market dynamics are still a dominant influence. The marketplace for the attention of consumers, voters and contributors merges with the marketplace for goods and services and the marketplaces for money, power, and political influence.
An Integral Analysis — Beyond Paranoia to Sobriety
This fused meta-marketplace is not immune to evolutionary development but it always operates to facilitate marketplace success and economic expansion. Let’s not fall into left-wing-style condemnation of greedy malicious corporate villainy—many corporate leaders are quite enlightened. And let’s not overgeneralize. We’re talking about powerful tendencies rather than absolute correspondences. But the incentives of the system still operate in a way that’s opaque to non-economic values. Our financial economy tends to be a “machine of more.” We now manufacture not only goods and services, but also the demand for them. Consumers can be readily influenced to buy products and services they don’t want or need.
Voters can be influenced too, even to misplaced loyalties and hatred even of those who most closely represent their interests. Because of the effectiveness of media (and meme) manipulation, the popular will can, to a significant degree, be bought and sold, with most votes going to the lowest-common denominator. People try to reason for themselves; we are not blind automatons. But the power of well-funded advertising and PR efforts (even when they are dishonest and destructive) is now much stronger & more insidious than is generally understood. It determines the results of most elections. We shrug it off and minimize it at our peril.
We’re all party to a pattern bigger than any player. As I wrote in 2004 in The Terrible Truth and the Wonderful Secret: Answering the Call of Our Evolutionary Emergency:
“…the all-consuming marketplace tends to function as a positive feedback loop fueling uncontrolled consumption and economic expansion. Companies must maximize profits to succeed. Successful companies must advertise, whetting consumer appetites in order to increase sales and profits. To succeed, television, radio, online and other media, advertising, and public relations must compete for our attention. In the process programming must become ever more hypnotic, compelling, addictive, and persuasive. Media-saturated citizens will believe they are making free choices, even when their consumption and voting choices are being programmed subconsciously….Profitable companies, their executives, and well-to-do investors all understand the wisdom of contributing money to parties and candidates who are sympathetic to their interests. Politicians must raise money if they want to get elected, re-elected, and wield influence. It seems as though no one has any real choice in these matters; everyone is simply fulfilling the inherited obligations of his or her role.”
Many Integral Evolutionaries have been working to bring more intelligence to public affairs through cultural education and persuasion. But yesterday’s ruling tilts the game board in a way that further exaggerates the influence of money politics and corporate special interests, even further stacking the deck against principled political activism.
Without demonizing corporations, we can see that in aggregate they exercise their political influence on behalf of their economic advantages and interests, which are often (although not always) different from the best interests of the country as a whole, and too often unprincipled. It’s not the job or the nature of corporations to lead us to an optimal political future. But yesterday’s ruling hands them outsized political power.
Even with the surge of citizen involvement he catalyzed in 2008, it is doubtful that Barack Obama could have been elected president under the campaign finance rules handed down yesterday.
It was a sweeping ruling, going far beyond the case at hand (and even the plaintiffs’ arguments) to strike down campaign finance restrictions that have been in effect since 1909. In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “The Court operates with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel when it strikes down one of Congress’ most significant efforts to regulate the role that corporations and unions play in electoral politics. It compounds the offense by implicitly striking down a great many state laws as well.” (Speaking of judicial activism!)
Stevens began his dissent with a chilling one-line summary: “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.” And President Obama summed it up pretty well: “With its ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics.” A New York Times editorial said it “strikes at the heart of democracy.” Florida Representative Alan Grayson probably said it most dramatically: “The Supreme Court in essence has ruled that corporations can buy elections.”
Don’t forget, this comes at a moment when huge transitions in the newspaper industry are also threatening the financial underpinnings of the serious journalism that is vital to an informed electorate.
Like most other Integralists, I admire President Obama tremendously. Even so, I’ve been unenthusiastic about the compromised process that has produced most major legislation this year, especially the health care reform bills (which reform only certain aspects of a dysfunctional disease-care system, deferring more fundamental reform into the future). I mobilized to elect him, but it’s been hard for me to get excited about his recent agenda. So, like many others, I’ve become less outwardly engaged in politics. But yesterday’s news calls all passivity into question.
An Evolutionary Civic Duty
The issue raised by this ruling is unambiguous, fundamental, and impossible to overlook. It compromises the ability of our society to make important choices intelligently. Democratic rule has serious problems, but the problems of a corporate plutocracy are of a whole different—and frightening—order.
This is a blow to what’s left of our system’s very ability to correct course and purify itself of corruption.
May this ruling prove to be the “swing to excess” that produces a backlash. May it mobilize a broad coalition of patriotic citizens who can’t bear to see American government being effectively for sale via a marketplace controlled by moneyed special interests.
This may be a meta-systemic issue that large numbers of people can understand. If so, it may harness people’s widespread anger over our broken system and motivate a movement more righteous and benign than that of the recent tea-parties.
Conscious, responsible citizens will need to respond forcefully and effectively to this disturbing development. That includes President Obama, the fragmented and disappointing Democratic Party, you, and me.