It’s Not Over Except for the Shouting

There it was – a full day without political commercials. Wasn’t it lovely? No 30-second snippets of vitriol, tightly engineered messages of hate and innuendo. Mostly lies, no matter which side of the aisle you come down on.

I approve this message even though in the past I’ve been part of the creative teams who drew up and executed these political “hits.” Find out the candidate’s vulnerability, based on public opinion surveys, then hammer, hammer, hammer. None of it’s real, except for the real impact it can have in persuading otherwise rational people that, yes, so-and-so really is a liar/cheat/incompetent fool. Or, conversely, so-and-so really is a great person, a savior of the people.

Or a real beast …

OK. That’s not real, except for the “Mao” part.

The remarkable thing this year is that there may have come a point of diminishing returns. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing more than a billion dollars in misleading TV ads, mostly from a gang of billionaires led by the Koch brothers, voters apparently were able to tune them out.

How else can we explain the screaming ineffectiveness of the waves of last-minute TV spots? The marketers’ mantra is if you say something enough – particularly if you use engaging images and comforting voices – then people will come to believe it, no matter how improbable. So over and over and over again we got the same messages – particularly the ones about Obama not measuring up to the job, he tried but failed, we need a change.

No doubt that was the message that tested best. We even got it from women sitting at their kitchen tables, without the Harry and Louise dialogue but still with that personable “at home” quality. “My family just can’t take another four years.”

Well, they will. And we don’t have to listen to you again for at least another two years.

There is some relief, then, that the shrill political barkers are gone. But the adverse impact of Citizens United will be with us for many years – until we can get rid of a couple of those business-oriented justices and put the issue to a new judiciary test.

It was interesting to see that Republicans this year avoided challenging California’s requirement that the political shell groups identify their donors – apparently concerned that the billionaire sponsors of the right-wing claptrap would have to drop their masks. Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in the Citizens United decision, clearly stated that unbridled political spending should not be done in secret.

While we wait for the right moment to challenge Citizens United and remove the scourge of big money from our politics, it’s worth noting that we had at least one positive effect of the ruling: It allowed unions to spend money to talk with nonmembers about candidates and issues during the campaign. Thus, while unions were unable to match the firepower of big corporate sponsors in the ad wars, they were able to take their message door-to-door.

That’s the strength the labor movement always has had in politics – people. Even though union membership is on a 40-year slide – from 35 percent of the workforce in 1970 to less than 12 percent today, and less than 7 percent in the private sector – union participation in politics remains high.

Nearly 22 percent of all voters this year identified themselves as being from union households (union members and their families), a number that has been remarkable consistent even as the number of union members has dwindled. Nearly 60 percent of those voters cast their ballots for Obama and other Democratic candidates, also consistent with previous elections.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada – three crucial swing states – union participation was higher and more pro-Obama, lending credence to claims by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka that the labor movement was instrumental in delivering the election to the president, and key Democrats running in those states. In those states, 65 percent of union members voted for Obama, 70 percent in Ohio.

The automobile industry bailout also helped Obama in Ohio and other states in the Midwest, particularly after Mitt Romney’s people ran ads claiming that Chrysler was planning to ship Jeep production overseas, taking those jobs with them. Chrysler was so incensed by the claim that it gave its union workers Election Day off to go vote their pocketbooks.

While unions have always been able to turn out their numbers – generally voting for candidates they endorse – the difference this year, because of Citizens United, is that they could also work to turn out nonmembers. They used phone-banking and door-knocking to reach these voters, working through their community affiliate Working America, which now has 3 million members.

In the last five days of the campaign, unions and community allies knocked on 800,000 doors in Ohio alone, the AFL-CIO said, with more than 10 million door-knocks and phone calls nationwide.

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who spent the last month of the campaign crisscrossing the swing states, credited the activists who poured their heart and soul into the campaign, reaching out to tell their stories about why we need to give President Obama another four years to finish the job. “That’s what cuts through the noise of all those negative ads,” she said.

As we recover from the bitter campaign and ponder the years ahead, don’t expect the earnest sounds of kumbaya to continue. The sense of renewed hope will get a quick reality check as we head into a lame duck session of Congress, always an adventure. There is a “fiscal cliff” on the horizon, as you may have heard.

In fact, labor is already developing plans to fight tax cuts for the wealthy and efforts to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. House Speaker John Boehner may be smiling and cooing right now, but he has designs on the shape of any “compromise” to resolve the debt issue.

So the fight between two competing visions for our nation goes on. But it will occur much more quietly for a while, which is a relief and a danger. Don’t stop paying attention.

3 thoughts on “It’s Not Over Except for the Shouting

  1. Interesting that it was the Jeep ad in Ohio that backfired and possibly cost Romney the election. A flawed strategy, galvanizing his opposition. So might this serve as a lesson for all political ad makers? How do you see it changing the tools of the trade?

    • I think we’re already seeing the Republican political class begin a process of deep soul-searching about the strategy and projections of the Romney campaign. It’s stunning to see how many GOP operatives thought Romney was going to win Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and Virginia, Florida and Nevada — even though the tracking polls showed Obama maintaining a lead in all those states. The Jeep ad was an effort to undercut Obama’s strength with the automobile industry rescue, but it was met with scorn immediately. It never got traction.

      • And ad strategy may be the least of the concerns of a party whose platform appeals mostly to angry white men and is funded almost entirely by the richest 1 percent. If they continue to ignore (or even insult) women and minorities, they are writing their own political obituary.

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