Think Again: And They Call It Democracy

10/28/2010 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Eric Alterman Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

In an example of an article that has appeared in many if not most political publications during the past few days The New York Times reported Wednesday morning that "Democratic candidates have generally wielded a significant head-to-head financial advantage over their Republican opponents in individual competitive races."

The story, headlined, "Democrats Retain Edge in Spending on Campaigns," explains that this fact has been "[l]ost in all of the attention paid to the heavy spending by Republican-oriented independent groups in this year's midterm elections." The difference, say the reporters, is $40 million: $119 million to $79 million. What's more, as of October 13, Democrats in House races in play collectively had about $45 million in cash on hand, compared with about $32 million for Republicans.

Reporters are misleading the public about what is the most important development in American democracy in decades by confusing the party committees with the actual story of fundraising. The normally soft-spoken liberal pundit E.J. Dionne explains that it is no so much a stretch anymore to compare our country to "a Third World nation where a small number of millionaires and billionaires spent massive sums to push the outcome in their preferred direction."

Michael Steele's endless antics at the Republican National Committee led the rich white folk who normally fund it to look elsewhere to park their dough. But as Jesse Zwick reports in The Washington Independent, the parties also "are being substantially outgunned this time around by a nexus of outside spending outfits that represent a variety of special interests."

Read carefully. The Times article quoted above itself is not nearly as misleading as its headline or lede paragraph would imply. For instance, the writers do note that "Outside group spending has already far exceeded the total for the last midterm election cycle, in 2006, and is on track to surpass even what was spent by independent groups in 2008, a presidential election year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics."

It notes the enormous amounts of money being poured into close races by organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's various billionaire-backed efforts, along with too many others even to count, much less mention. (This disparity is much more sensibly explained in this Wall Street Journal article.) But one thing you can always count on in American politics is that few people actually read long New York Times stories carefully and absolutely no cable television or talk radio hosts do.

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