What if you knew of someone whose word was untrustworthy and who had a complete disregard for his own reputation for honesty. Would you act upon what that person told you? What if that person had endless money to deliver the dishonest message to you again and again, over and over?
Welcome to the world of SuperPACs and their television advertisements. We had a good example of their operation in the 2014 race for governor.
The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance reported that Independent Expenditure “SuperPACs” spent more than the gubernatorial candidates themselves in 2014. Charlie Baker’s campaign reported $5.6 million in expenditures; over $11 million in Super PAC money went to supporting Baker. Martha Coakley’s campaign spent $3.9 million and about $6.9 was expended by SuperPACs on her behalf.
The primary activity of the SuperPACs is negative advertising.
The late Professor Wilson Carey McWilliams contended that for speech to serve democracy there must be the trust that one is not being deceived. Consider one anti-Coakley Super PAC ad run by Commonwealth Future Independent Expenditure PAC. The mismanagement at the Department of Children and Families was on the public’s mind. An activist group had sued the state over DCF’s management and Attorney General Coakley defended the state, arguing that the DCF would be better off following a state corrective plan and not diverting funds into the suit. The Super PAC ran an ad representing that Coakley was responsible for the deaths of children under the care of DCF. An editorial in The Berkshire Eagle newspaper termed the ad “loathsome even by Super PAC standards.”
The funder of the Commonwealth Future Independent Expenditure PAC was the Republican Governors Association. The top ten 2014 contributors to the Republican Governors Association were Koch Industries, Las Vegas Sands (Sheldon Adelson), ETC Capital, Duke Energy, Elliott Management, KSL Capital Partners, NextEra Energy, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Wynn Resorts, and Citadel LLC. The president of the SuperPAC, who appears in the legal disclaimer for the ad, was Beth Lindstrom. The Boston Globe tried to reach her and the SuperPAC to inquire about the ad. “Lindstrom did not respond to calls for comment. A spokeswoman for the PAC said the ad “speaks for itself.” There is your accountability for you.
On the other side a Democratic SuperPAC named Mass Independent Expenditure PAC and funded by the Mass Teachers Association, Democratic Governors Association, SEIU, and AFSCME ran an ad essentially accusing Baker of being a liar, saying one thing in public and doing the opposite as an official. In a series of ads Baker was accused of coddling the NRA, underfunding and ignoring education, running a patronage operation, boosting his own pay while jacking up premiums as a health care executive, engaging in a corrupt pay to play scheme, and on and on. The SuperPACs’ ads and other materials attacking Baker is still online here.
Candidates anticipate future dealings in politics and parties are permanent institutions. Thus they have an interest in preserving their reputations and are at least somewhat restrained in their use of negative ads, which tend to blowback at the delivering candidate or party. Not so for SuperPACs.
Professor Dante Scala has observed that SuperPACs are more likely to deliver negative messages than are candidates or parties because the public’s opinion of SuperPACs can’t get any lower. This tears at the fabric of the trust a democratic audience should have in the speaker – a reputational trust recognized as far back as Aristotle in his Rhetoric. Given that SuperPACs now deliver more message than do candidates or parties, this is distressing. Super PACS can be divorced from reputation and truth while exerting the brute force of huge television advertising buys.
McWilliams argued that the dependence on television advertisements reduces citizen involvement and produces a politics in which leaders relate to their constituents largely though media. “That is closer to the model of totalitarian parties than it is to traditional democratic ideals.”McWilliams wrote long in advance of the advent of SuperPACs though.