Obama at a New York City fundraiser.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Sometimes words outlive their usefulness. Sometimes the gap between changing reality and the names we've given it grows so wide that they empty of all meaning or retain older meanings that only confuse us. "Election," "presidential election campaign," and "democracy" all seem like obvious candidates for name-change.
I thought about this recently as President Obama hustled around my hometown, snarling New York traffic in the name of Campaign 2012. He was, it turned out, "hosting" three back-to-back fundraising events: one at the tony Gotham Bar and Grill for 45 supporters at $35,800 a head (the menu: roasted beet salad, steak and onion rings, with apple strudel, chocolate pecan pie, and cinnamon ice cream—a meal meant to "shine a little light" on American farms); one for 30 Jewish supporters at the home of Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, for at least $10,000 a pop; and one at the Sheraton Hotel, evidently for the plebes of the contribution world, that cost a mere $1,000 a head. (Maybe the menu there was rubber chicken.)
In the course of his several meals, the president pledged his support for Israel (in the face of Republican charges that he is eternally soft on the subject), talked about "taxes and the economy" to his undoubtedly under-taxed listeners, and made this stirringly meaningless but rousing comment: "No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, we're one nation. We're one people. And that's what's at stake in this election."
Outside his final event, Occupy Wall Street protesters saw something else at stake, dubbing him the "1 percent president." The end result from a night's heavy lifting: $2.4 million for his election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, nowhere close to 1 percent of what they will need for the next year.
These were the 67th, 68th, and 69th fundraisers attended by Obama so far in 2011, or the 71st, 72nd, and 73rd. (It depended on who was counting.) In either case, we're talking about approximately one fundraiser every five days, a total of 6 percent of the events in which Obama took part in this non-election year.
Think about that. You vote for the president to spend some part of 20 percent of his days raising money for his own future from the incredibly wealthy. Or put another way, the Washington Post now estimates that if you add in the non-fundraising, election-oriented events that involve him—63 so far in 2011—perhaps 12 percent of his time is taken up with campaign efforts of one sort or another; and this is what he's been doing 12 to 24 months before the election is scheduled to happen.
New York being the home of... gulp... Wall Street (1 percent! 1 percent!), Obama doesn't exactly have it to himself. Mitt Romney was heading into town on December 14th for his own rousing round of four fundraisers. One at the Waldorf Astoria will be hosted by—you can't be balder than this—four JPMorgan Chase executives, including James B. "Jimmy" Lee, Jr., the vice chairman of the company and the "banker who battled the Obama administration over the restructuring of Chrysler LLC." And oh yes, Romney leads Obama in funding support from billionaires, 42 to 30 (with Rick Perry taking third place at 20).
In the 2008 election, JPMorgan employees gave $4.6 million to the candidates of their choice, coming in behind only Goldman Sachs and Citigroup on The Street. Now that, I would say, is actual electoral power. Perhaps it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that the voting that matters most takes place at those fundraisers, not in the booths where, billions of dollars in attack ads later, the usual hoi polloi pull the handles on electoral slot machines.
Their Bread, Our Circus
In ancient Rome, the emperors provided the capital's inhabitants with "bread and circuses." Ever since, that combination has been shorthand for rulers buying off the ruled with the necessities of life and spectacle.
In Rome, that spectacle involved gladiatorial and other elaborate games of death that took place in the Colosseum. In this age, our rulers, the 1 percent whose money has flooded the electoral cycle, are turning the election itself into our extended circus. This year, a series of Republican televised "debates" have glued increasing numbers of eyeballs to screens—and not just Republican eyeballs, either. Everyone waits for the latest version of a reality show to produce the next cat fight, fabulous gaffe, late-night laugh line, confession, denial, scandal, or plot twist, the next thumbs up or, far better, thumbs down on some candidate's increasingly brief political life in the arena.
Think of it as their bread and our circus. Who can doubt that, like the crowds of Rome once upon a time, we await the inevitable thumbs-down vote and the YouTube videos that precede and follow it with a kind of continuing bloodlust? The only problem: however strange all this may be, it's not, at least in the old-fashioned sense, an election nor does it seem to have much to do with democracy. The fact is that we have no word for what's going on. Semi-democracy? Unrepresentative democracy? 1 percent democracy? Demospectacracy?
Of course, we still speak of this as a presidential election campaign, and it's true that 11 months from now more than 60 percent of the voting age population will step into polling booths across the country and cast ballots. But let's face it, if this is an election at all, it's certainly one stricken with elephantiasis. Once, as now, a presidential race had primaries, conventions, campaigning, mudslinging, and sometimes even a few debates, but all of this had limits. In recent years, the limits—almost any limits—have been disappearing. Along the way, the process has expanded from an eight-month-long affair that most voters only began to attend to sometime in the fall of election year to a perpetual campaign, perpetually discussed, reported on, and displayed.
The primaries, for instance, have been on a forced march toward ever-earlier dates. Iowa's—actually a "caucus"—is now on January 3rd of election year and the first official primary, New Hampshire's is on January 10th. (Over the years, it's repeatedly had to move its date forward from March to hold onto that status.) This time around, the "debates" leading up to the primaries began last May; previously meaningless party "straw polls," covered as monumental events by hundreds of reporters, accompanied them; the first of a World War I-style barrage of attack ads was launched in the same period, and the opinion polls on various constellations of likely (or unlikely) candidates—what Jonathan Schell once called our "serial elections"—preceded everything, accompanied by endless media speculation about them.
It's an ever-expanding system, engorging itself on money and sucking in ever larger audiences. It's the Blob of this era. In fact, the next campaign now kicks off in the media the day after (if not the day before) the previous election ends with speculation (polls soon to follow) handicapping the odds of future candidates, none yet announced.