Yesterday, a perceptive piece by Buzzfeed political reporters McKay Coppins and Zeke Miller laid bare a breathtakingly cynical strategy by the Romney campaign and top Republican-leaning superPACs: to win the election by a sheer, exhausting flood of money.
“There’s no way they’ll be able to keep up. Our SuperPACs are our Star Wars, if you will,” said a Republican operative close to the Romney campaign…In fact, on Wednesday Obama officials told reporters that all-in, they expected to be outspent three-to-one by Romney and his Republican allies by Election Day.
Coppins and Miller call this the “Cold War strategy,” a reference to how the arms race of the 1980s crippled the Soviet Union. It’s a sharply observed piece, and it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the intended strategy, especially after a quick look at the actual money involved. We’re seeing multi-million-dollar fundraising commitments from billionaire donors like Harold Simmons, Sheldon Adelson, and David Koch as well as from major corporate groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And, of course, some of the money going into this strategy is anonymous and untraceable.
So that raises another question: if this is really the strategy Romney and his allies are going with, why would they tip their hand and explain it? It could be that they think the story won’t get much public attention, or it could be that they feel confident that it’s hard to counter. But there’s a deeper reason, and it’s a kind of deliberate psychological warfare. They want people to know their strategy because they want to discourage and demoralize their opponents. The shameless, arrogant insistence that they can and will buy the election is kind of the point.
That deep strategy is going to be something you’ll see all year. Whether it’s aimed at people who work in progressive politics, at activists, or at voters themselves, the ethically-loathsome goal is the same: to make people feel hopeless and powerless, like they can’t make a difference and shouldn’t bother trying. Read between the lines of op-eds and TV ads from Karl Rove and his allies and you’ll see the real message: your participation isn’t going to do any good. And the number of ads you’re going to see is going to be a tactic in and of itself: the kind of money we’re talking about is enough to completely flood the airwaves, and the effect of seeing an exhausting number of negative, misleading ads is going to be downright numbing—in a way that will make the political process seem just awful.
It’s sad that they know they need to make people feel depressed and demoralized in order to win. It’s even sadder that they suspect it’s going to work.
Want some hard evidence that this strategy is already underway? Check out this survey from the Brennan Center, which shows that people already see this outside spending as corrupt, eroding their trust in government and their ability to feel like they can make a difference. The worst part?
One in four Americans say that they are less likely to vote because big donors to Super PACs have so much more influence over elected officials than average Americans. Less wealthy and less educated Americans were significantly more likely to say they would be less likely to vote because of Super PAC influence.
That’s a terrifying statistic, because it shows that superPAC spending is having its intended effect: not just persuading people to vote one way or the other, but persuading them that voting is futile and they shouldn’t bother.
That the big corporations and wealthy donors who prop up these superPACs want to discourage voting should come as no surprise; it goes hand in hand with serious, widespread efforts at the state level to suppress voting. Republican legislators have passed many bills—often bills issuing from ALEC—that reduce access to the vote, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is attempting to purge hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls. ALEC and its allies understand that the fewer people vote, the more power they can exert over the political process.
The spend-to-death strategy works in the same way, except that instead of depriving people of their right to vote and participate through legal means, it’s designed to make people willingly give up that right without a fight.
How can we respond? Well, the worst thing we could do is do what Karl Rove is hoping we do, which is to give up and drop out of the process. Hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy—and so is empowerment.