Post-Mortem on the Superpacs

It looked for a while that a flood of money would deeply skew the election, but that did not happen. The money was raised and spent, but to little effect. In a report on the electoral impact of the Super Pacs, The Daily Beast concluded: “No surprise, the conservative-leaning groups tended to be the biggest losers in our survey. But the sheer numbers are, in some cases, staggering.”

In their scorecard of effects, here are some specifics: “The major Karl Rove-linked group, American Crossroads, spent about $104 million dollars supporting or opposing candidates in 19 races . . . . Just under 98 percent of those races ended up being a loss for the PAC. . . . Percentage-wise, other groups fared worse. Winning Our Future—which backed Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid and received $15 million (of the $17 million it spent) from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—saw 100% of its spending go out the window.” (See, “2012’s Super PAC Winners and Losers.”)

This is by no means to say that democratic governments can’t be bought, or that lobbyists and special interests don’t exert undue control over the legislative process. But, clearly, voters seem resistant to political advertising.

The prevailing theory behind these massive advertising campaigns has been that repetition seeps into the brain. If something is said often enough, the mind inevitably succumbs, accepting the message as part of reality.

But when you think of the long lines of voters that waited to cast their ballots in this election, often for hours, you know that there was nothing passive about their commitment. Moreover, in conversations, voters will often speak about feeling guilty if they don’t vote, and this despite the fact that in our Electoral College system extra votes don’t really count once a candidate has a majority. People joke about having been indoctrinated to vote by their third grade teachers, but they still vote.

Not everyone, of course. But the 50% or so engaged in the electoral process really do seem to be engaged – sufficiently, at least, to resist manipulation of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the campaign. They are not like consumers choosing a breakfast cereal, or rats in a cage being fed pellets of information. The theories of learning that predict the power of massive advertisement barrages seem to have missed something.

It may not be correct to say that the right to vote is sacred. But it does seem to occupy a special place in our world. My guess is that it has to do with the fact that it makes us into agents, actors who have a say in the future. As the world get bigger and more organized and automated, being a citizen with a voice holds its value. We don’t often get a chance to experience this, but when we do it reminds us that we are actors who can sometimes make a difference.

As the political parties battle for our votes, paradoxically they communicate our freedom to give and withhold. Trying to influence us, they remind us that we still control some actions that matter.