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Tom Engelhardt
Tom Dispatch / Op-Ed
Published: Wednesday 24 October 2012
“There’s a wonderful old American postcard tradition of gigantism, a mixture of (and gentle mocking of) a national, but especially Western, urge toward bravado, braggadocio, and pride when it comes to this country.”

Democratic Mockpocalypse

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Obesity is an American plague -- and no, I’m not talking about overweight Americans.  I’m talking about our overweight, super sized presidential campaign.  I’m talking about Big Election, the thing that’s moved into our homes and, especially if you live in a “swing state,” is now hogging your television almost 24/7.

There’s a wonderful old American postcard tradition of gigantism, a mixture of (and gentle mocking of) a national, but especially Western, urge toward bravado, braggadocio, and pride when it comes to this country.  The imagery on those cards once ranged from giant navel oranges on railroad flatcars to saddled jackalopes (rabbits with antlers) mounted by cowboy riders on the range.  Think of the 2012 election season as just such a postcard -- without the charm.

Though no one’s bothered to say it, the most striking aspect of this election is its gigantism.  American politics is being super sized.  Everything -- everything -- is bigger. There are now scores of super PACs and “social welfare” organizations, hundreds of focus groups, thousands upon thousands of polls, hundreds of thousands of TV ads, copious multi-million dollar contributions to the dark side by the .001%, billions of ad dollars flooding the media, up to $3 billion pouring into the coffers of political consultants, and oh yes, though it’s seldom mentioned, trillions of words.

It’s as if no one can stop talking about what might otherwise be one of the least energizing elections in recent history: the most vulnerable president in memory versus a candidate who somehow threatens not to beat him, two men about as inspired as a couple of old beanbag chairs.  And yet the words about the thrill of it all just keep on pouring out.  They stagger (or perhaps stun) the imagination.  They are almost all horse race- and performance-oriented.  Who is ahead and why?  Who is preparing for what and how?  Who has the most momentary of advantages and why?  Who looked better, talked tougher, or out-maneuvered whom?

It never seems to end, and why should it?  After all, it’s the profit-center of the ages, pure money on a stick. And there’s just so much to say about what is surely an event for the record books.  The only question (and it’s not one to be taken lightly) is: What is it?

The Jumbotron Election

It started earlier and lasted longer than any election in our history, and every number associated with it is bigger and better and more striking than the last.  If you happen to have the TV on, every one of its moments is The Moment.  I even heard one prime-time news anchor call the vice-presidential head-to-head “an epic generational debate.” 

Such hyperbole is the daily norm.  Before the first presidential debate, another TV talking head assured his audience, “the Republicans were crawling out onto the 33rd floor ledge looking into the abyss.”  Then, for a while, that abyss belonged to Barack Obama and he was falling, falling, falling.

That was, of course, before the second of the three presidential debates, which arrived with enough fanfare to put the Thrilla in Manila or the Rumble in the Jungle to shame.  It was, according to the logos I jotted down, “The Showdown,” “The Rematch,” “The Comeback,” or simply “High Stakes” -- but what wasn’t in this election season?  Of course, Romney and Obama weren’t doing something as mundane as simply debating each other for an hour and a half.  They were preparing to head “into the arena” to demonstrate “the power of one night,” and not just any night but “the most crucial single night of the campaign.”  All of this to be followed, of course, by debate number three ("The Last Face-Off," "The Final Showdown").

Everything about this year was, in fact, crucial and record-making, including the 73,000 (mainly attack) ads that saturated Las Vegas by October 12th, making it “the place with the most televised campaign advertisements in a single year.” (Cleveland came in second and Denver third.)  And talk about obesity: for the two campaigns, which long ago busted out of their public-financing election togs, the sky’s now the limit on contributions and there’s no place in the country, however faintly competitive, at which dollars can’t be thrown.

That blitz of money -- more than $3 billion for TV ads alone -- should stagger the imagination, as should the nearly billion dollars each that the Obama and Romney crews have already raised.  Then there are the multimillions pouring into mainly Republican Super PACs; the $10 million that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam gave in June to the Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future, and the $24.2 million that has followed -- with Adelson reportedly pledging another $65 million, if necessary, to get Obama out of the White House; and the multi-millions the billionaire Koch brothers have poured into Americans for Prosperity.  That organization, in turn, is funneling $6 million into anti-Obama attack ads every two weeks and has even set up its own “ground game” -- 200 permanent staff members in 32 states, and thousands of volunteers armed with “sophisticated online micro-targeting tools.”  All of this, of course, gives the phrase “money politics” new meaning.

And then there’s TV.  Keep in mind that prime-time audiences were radically down this spring: CBS lost 8% of its audience, Fox 20%, and ABC 21%. What luck, then, that billions of ad dollars and eyeball-gluing programming have been flowing into the same medium as part of that heavily over-promoted reality show "Mitt v. Barack" (only one will remain standing!).  It's been an ongoing vote-'em-outta-there show that, as in the second presidential debate, has proven capable of capturing an audience of 65.6 million across the channels, the sort of numbers that stomp the Oscars and are beaten only by a few previous presidential debates and Super Bowls.

So if you own some media outfit, from the first spring Republican debates on, politics has been a never-ending Christmas.  It should surprise no one, then, that the employees of those media bosses have super sized the way they are plugging election 2012.  (In one of the stranger phenomena of our election moment, however, this obvious conflict of interest is never discussed, even if its reality is daily before our eyes.)

So forget the profits involved.  Just sit back and enjoy an election for the ages.  Only one thing could possibly be bigger: election 2016 -- and the media isn’t even waiting for November 7th to begin handicapping that race.  Articles about whether or not Billary is running are already commonplace.  (Hillary’s denied it.  Bill’s left the door ajar.  Just about everybody suspects that, in the end, the answer could be yes.) 

In the meantime, what a learning experience this election is proving to be.  Who doesn’t now know about the significance of “the suburban woman,” or the "Walmart mom," or what a “four-point swing” is, or an “outlier poll,” or a campaign "prebuttal" (a preemptive response to arguments not yet made), or how to judge Gallup’s handiwork?  Who couldn’t go on and on about campaign 2012?  Which, in fact, is just what’s happening.

An Election That Outgrew Us All

Still, amid all the hoopla, money, and analysis, what exactly is it?  I mean this thing we still call an “election,” in which our temperatures are taken every 30 seconds, in which we are told that we have more or less voted every day for months on end, in which to keep up with events you need to read daily columns by a man who lives only to make sense of this morning's batch of polls.

What does it mean when the election season never ends, when 2016 is already gestating in the oversized body of 2012?  What does it mean when a candidate must spend a startling proportion of his time glad-handing the wealthiest Americans just to keep the pump primed, the campaign rolling along?  What does it mean that a “corporate strategist” -- a woman working for clients who want something from the White House -- prepares one of the candidates for the debates and helps plot his campaign strategy?  What does it mean when the other’s advisors are a walking, talking directory of lobbyists?  What does it mean when you already know that the$2.5 billion presidential election of 2012 will be the $3.5 billion election of 2016?

What is to be made of a phenomenon that seems to be outgrowing us all, and every explanation we have for what it is?  Yes, thanks only in part to the Supreme Court, this is distinctly a 1% election, but that hardly encompasses it.  Yes, corporations and lobbyists are pouring their everything into it, but that can’t really explain it all either.  Yes, it’s a profit center for media owners, but no one would claim that catches the essence of it.  Yes, it’s an entertainment spectacle, but is that really how you'd define it?  And certainly it’s an everything-the-market-can-bear version of an election campaign, but does that encompass it either?

It’s certainly not your grandparents’ election, and you may not understand it any better than I do.  But if you’ve been worried about Big Government, why haven’t you been worrying about Big Election, too? 

The fact is: sometimes things outgrow all of us, even those who think they control them.

And here, to me, is the strangest thing: for all the trillions of words devoted to campaign 2012, no one even bothers to discuss its size.  Americans may be willing to argue copiously about whether New York's Mayor Bloomberg should control the super sizing of soft drinks in his city, but not a peep is heard when it comes to the super sizing of the run for the presidency.

Under the circumstances, the slogan of ABC News seems either touchingly or mockingly silly: “Your Voice, Your Vote.” Whatever this thing may be, it certainly has ever less to do with your individual voice or your individual vote.  As Big Election becomes a way of life, democracy -- small “d” -- increasingly seems like a term from a lost time.  If this is democracy, it’s on steroids and on the Comedy Channel.  It’s our own Democratic Mockpocalypse.

I’d be the last person to claim I understand it.  Still, I do know one thing: whatever it is, we’re evidently going to pass right through this endless political season without stopping to take stock of our super sized political world.



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ABOUT Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

It's funny...the most

It's funny...the most overhyped, overblown, over-spent election ever and (outside my e-mail inbox,) I've probably heard LESS about it than any previous election in my lifetime. It's amazing how staying away from the TV, blocking web ads and refraining from volunteering one's personal information whenever possible will do for one's blood pressure when these things get rolling. I knew who I was going to vote for before the campaigns even got off the ground and my decision hasn't changed. So any super PAC dollars that may have been aimed at me were wasted.

It depresses me that people are so easily swayed by advertising that the amount of money poured into a campaign makes such an enormous impact. If everyone did a little research into the candidates and the issues, and made up their minds based on facts, money and advertising would be irrelevant. No one would bother dumping vast sums into ads that wouldn't influence anyone's decisions.

The polls, on the other hand, amuse me. In twenty years of voting, no national poll has ever asked me who I favored or planned to vote for. And I bet there are many others out here who vote religiously but have never been polled either.

I wonder how many elections have ultimately been decided by people who, by accident or their own design, were never consulted, courted or assaulted by candidates' campaign shenanigans. Not enough of them, I'm sure.

Here is another vote for

Here is another vote for either Dr. Stein or Rocky Anderson.

If only everyone had seen the

If only everyone had seen the Democracy Now expanded debate! They would have seen the enormous contrast between the major candidates and Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson, and perhaps decided to vote for one of the adults.

It is absolutely amazing how

It is absolutely amazing how many words, how much time, how much media is focuses on politics. A good government should work quietly behind the scenes, efficiently maintaining the systems the people desire. The extraordinary amount of attention focused on those who legislate and govern has turned our government into a gladiatorial circus event, a second Hollywood, a carnival of the ego. To quote Marshal McLuhan, "The medium is the message." And the message is "way too much." Elections are a media orgasm over a non-event; yet, this big media money maker now extend to two years.

Whoever wins the presidency will be owned by the same people who own the congress and the supreme court. Soon they will get the call, "Let's go duck hunting."*

Imagine how pleasant the world would be without all this brouhaha.

*Message to Romney: you may want to avoid the Cheney invite.

All of the above comments and

All of the above comments and declarations are well thought out. I'll be voting for Jill Stein, deviating from the hapless Democrats for the first time in 40 years. As to the author's question: what does all this mean? I believe it signals the death throes of the United States as we previously regarded it. Democracy has had a spear driven through its heart. War is as commonplace as Orwell fictionally conceived it. Lies have become more valuable than the truth. And the two reigning parties have absolutely no intention of coming down from their morally decaying mansion on the hill. The fuses have been primed and lit.
It's simply a matter of time before we implode. Most likely, sooner, rather than later.

Greg has a point. A vote for

Greg has a point.

A vote for Jill Stein (or Rocky Anderson, or Gary Johnson, or just about any third party candidate) is a way of telling the media that we absolutely do not buy their dumbo analysis, and telling the parties that they'd better figure out how to end the wars and restore the economy.

That worked real well with

That worked real well with Ralph Nader. Far wider known than Jill (who?) Stein. Totally pilloried by the press.

The state of democracy in the

The state of democracy in the U.S. these days is very demoralizing. This article nails it. The election is part entertainment, part pot-of-gold for those looking to make a buck, & all hyperbole. Real issues & facts have gone by the wayside, replaced by sound bites & trite campaign rhetoric. For example, I wish that just once in one of the debates any candidate had directly answered a question without hijacking the topic to his pre-planned agenda. As for polls, I'm almost to the point where I wish they'd be illegal. Actually, what I think everybody should do is refuse to answer a poll. That's what my dad used to do. Said who he planned to vote for was none of their business. I wonder what the pollsters would make of that! And the media ...let's not even go there. The best place to get down-to-earth, factual information about the real issues might actually be the BBC. Sad. Just think of all the good we could do with the money wasted on these elections!

The Democratic Party has a

The Democratic Party has a long, peculiar history of working to defeat itself. One issue that will remain ignored: The post-middle class/poor came out in droves to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 in hopes that he would launch a legitimate discussion about severe poverty in the US. That didn't happen. For four years, the discussion has been all ab0ut, only about, the suffering of those unfortunate souls who still have steady jobs AND middle class wages. We hear "progressives" sing praises to Bill Clinton, whose policies have resulted in rising infant mortality rates among our poor, and a life expectancy among poor Americans that has actually fallen below that of some Third World nations. It's pretty hard to get fired up about protecting the comforts of those who threw the poor off the cliff.

Vote Jill Stein for

Vote Jill Stein for President. Time to vote your hopes, not your fears

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