Secretly Funded “Social Welfare” Group Ads Dumbing Down Democracy

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Voting mannequins

June 1, 2012; Source: National Public Radio

NPR’s Peter Overby provides the nation’s top coverage of the internal workings of electoral campaigns, including lots of excellent insights into the functions of 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and political action committees.

He points out that the purportedly independent political committees that will be inundating the airwaves with political ads during the next several months have a distressing sort of sameness to them. A political ad from a political candidate such as Obama or Romney ends with a request for a vote. But the “dark money” ads of 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups such as Crossroads GPS (Republican) and Priorities USA (Democratic) can’t tell the viewer who to vote for.

The dark money ad, therefore, beats the crud out of an opponent in the commercial and then, rather than asking for a vote, tells the viewer to call the candidate to tell them that you don’t like the policy they’re pursuing. Big difference, right? It’s the tax-exempt version of the concept of the mental reservation, a form of casuistry that allows you to deceive without specifically telling a lie; legally, these ads are all but telling the viewer who to vote for, except they don’t come out and say it. Do you think the viewer doesn’t know that they’re seeing the ad because, in 2012, there’s a big national election that will determine who gets to call the White House home?

Overby quotes a media consultant, Adam Strasberg, who calls the practice what it is: “If you spend 25 seconds bashing a candidate or bashing a position he holds, and then say, ‘call this candidate up and tell him not to do this bad thing that they’re doing,’ you know, it’s a lawyer’s line that they’re setting up. So at the end of the day, there really is no difference in my book.”

Politico’s Roger Simon says that polls tell us that two-thirds of Americans are “tuning out” political ads and more than half are feeling the same about election coverage, though he seems to ascribe this to a decline in political and societal civility, suggesting that people think that the political parties’ mutual abuse is just too much. Maybe Overby is pointing out an additional factor: the fact that these dark money political ads are basically all of a formula, and that the American public tunes this stuff out because they know how artificial, stupid, exaggerated and/or unfair the arguments generally are.

These ads are not just boring in their sameness and uncivil in their hyped up arguments. The compendia of manipulated half-truths, based on the old formula of lies and statistics, are intellectually embarrassing in a democratic society. We have long called for the disclosure of the big money sources paying for these 501(c)(4) political ads. Such disclosure is necessary for protecting what is left of the American democratic process. There’s another reason. Whoever pays for these legally and intellectually deceptive ads masquerading as “social welfare” should be called out for accelerating—to warp speed—the dumbing down of American politics. Want to know why nothing gets done in political circles lately? Watch a few of these ads and try to imagine the political parties doing anything together to address big time issues such as joblessness or the federal debt.

There’s no reason whatsoever for hiding the identities of the dark money donors paying for these political ads. Why not tell these moneyed suits to stand up and explain the content of these ads? –Rick Cohen

  • Sheryl Siegel

    If two-thirds of Americans are” tuning out political ads,” then citizens are smarter than the ad men and the article is a non-sequitor. Let freedom ring.