So much for populism. At least when it comes to fighting the interests of big-money corporations.
In every vote this week pitting the interests of ordinary Californians against those of large companies, the corporate interests won big. Big bucks essentially convinced millions to vote against their own best interests.
This was an unfettered triumph of the very opposite of populism, defined by the Business Dictionary as “the uncorrupt and unsophisticated against the corrupt dominant elites.”
The most classic of this year’s California confrontations came on Proposition 45, which sought the same price regulation on health insurance that has governed premiums for auto and property insurance since voters passed Proposition 103 in 1988.
The result — a large defeat for the initiative — raises doubt whether it will ever again be possible to defeat a concerted media campaign funded by large corporations. This has nothing to do with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in “Citizens United,” which essentially said corporations are entitled to spend as much as they like in politics. California has never had limits on corporate donations in proposition campaigns; it has, however, had voters who sometimes could see through mendacious advertising.
Polls showed voters favored regulating health insurance prices by at least a 60-40 percent margin months before the election, before the money began to flow. They felt regulation was in their best interests.
By the end, the margin was essentially reversed. What happened? A radio and television blitz that cost insurance companies more than $57 million, compared with about $2.5 million spent by initiative backers. That’s a margin of almost 30-1.
Yet, almost all anti-45 commercials were prefaced by a fast-talking, lowered voice softly announcing the ad was paid for by the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Wellpoint Inc. (owner of Anthem Blue Cross), Blue Shield and Health Net. They are the state’s largest health insurance companies, the same firms standing to see reduced profits if Proposition 45 passed. The information came nowhere near getting voters to disregard what they were about to hear.
Further, the ads asserted that 45 would put rate control in the hands of one official who could be corrupted by “special interests.” Here some of California’s largest special interests were calling other, far smaller political donors special interests. The pot calling the kettle black.
Meanwhile, the political post the health insurance companies got voters to fear, the state insurance commissioner, is the very office whose occupants have made California the only state where car and property insurance rates have not risen in the last 25 years.
That happened because of Proposition 103, which passed despite the fact its backers were outspent about 60-1.
The same factors that killed 45 also defeated this year’s Proposition 46, which aimed to raise potential medical malpractice judgments and require drug testing of doctors. Again, both causes appear to be in the interest of ordinary Californians, for whom medical errors have become one of the five leading causes of death. Again, 46 was favored to start. It too was devastated by a blitz of big-money advertising that convinced voters it’s more risky to, for one example, drug test doctors than be treated by doctors addicted to prescription drugs (federal reports indicate about 15 percent of physicians have such addictions).
What happened between 1988 and today? One thing for sure: Far fewer voters read newspapers than 26 years ago. Though thinner than before, newspapers remain the one place where voters regularly can get objective information on issues they will decide. Voters also are watching far less TV news than in 1988, cutting the numbers getting even the truncated information available there.
Instead, more and more voters — like the general public — get their information from the Internet, where they select what they see rather than having knowledgeable editors and reporters present material to them
Not nearly as informed as before, voters are now more vulnerable to loud, repeated lies (as several major newspapers labeled the anti-45 and -46 ads).
The only hope is that at least some hoodwinked voters will realize they’ve been fooled and resolve not to let it happen again. But there is certainly no guarantee of this.
Thomas D. Elias is a writer in Southern California. [email protected]
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