The TV Told Me to Vote No

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So much money is invested by politicians and vested business interests in the electoral process these days that it’s becoming impossible to draw any conclusions from the outcome of an election.

If more people vote for George Bush (Republican contender) than Ralph Nader (Green Party contender), is it because they agree with Bush and don’t agree with Nader? Or is it because Bush had millions of dollars to spend on thirty second TV commercials and mailings, and Nader had none?

And if most voters make their choice based on the advertising barrage, what does that say about the validity of their decision?

It’s devastating, but probably true, to conclude that the democratic process has become so profoundly corrupted by big money that the election results are impeached.

Campaigning for a ballot initiative in 1998 that would have lowered electricity rates for Californians, I found myself one day handing out printed leaflets in front of the main gate at the Fresno County Fair. It seemed an almost futile gesture: for every one person I talked to (maybe even for sixty seconds), the utility companies were spending $7 million a week and reaching every single TV viewer in the state at least ten times. (We had no money to spend on advertising).

One woman paused to read my pamphlet, and then she said, “But the televisiontold me to vote ‘no’.”

Yes, it did. But the utilities’ ads were so crammed with lies (taxes will go up, electric rates will go up, crime will go up, etc.) that any reasonable person would have felt the same way if that was the only information they had available to them.

Between last October and Election Day, March 7, seven out-of-state insurance companies spent an estimated $50 million to defeat consumer reforms passed by the California Legislature and signed by Governor Gray Davis last year.

The two propositions (30 and 31) gave injured consumers the right to sue an insurance company that didn’t pay claims. But watching the insurers’ ads, you would have thought that a bunch of drunk drivers had lobbied the legislature to increase the income of lawyers.

The conventional wisdom in Sacramento (promoted, of course, by insurers)is that voter rejection of the reforms is a referendum that must be respected: no further legislation on the topic permitted.

But that’s ridiculous. The vote can only be considered a referendum on the size of the insurance companies’ war chest (funded by your premium dollars, by the way). The organization which backed the legislation, the Consumer Attorneys of California, is the only lobbying group with money to defend the reforms. But it raised only 10% of what the industry spent.

It’s not just money and lies that produce election results these days. Another trick of the corporate lobbies is to hide behind ersatz “consumer” or “environmental” advocates. Example: In 1998, David Horowitz, once a consumer reporter on local TV, continuously appeared on TV in what seemed to be brief news broadcasts, railing against our utility rate cut initiative. But they were actually advertisements, paid for by the utility companies.

And so was he! Campaign disclosure reports showed Horowitz raked in over $100,000 to deploy his journalistic skills on behalf of the utilities.

Another example: “Voter Revolt,” the non-profit group I started eleven years ago to sponsor 103, has been taken over by political consultants who sold it to the insurance industry. The group was paid $125,000 by the insurance companies to send mailings and appear in television commercials opposing pro-consumer Propositions 30 and 31.

Meanwhile, elected officials, who by virtue of their office offer at least some credibility on major public policy issues, are increasingly unwilling to take a position on controversial matters. They don’t want to antagonize the big business backers of various campaigns.

Political cowardice poster child #1: California Governor Gray Davis. He signed the insurance reform legislation after insisting on weakening amendments requested by some minor insurance companies. But once the major insurance companies began the campaign against the laws, Davis was nowhere to be found’ At least until two weeks ago, when the Governor was on the phone with insurance and utility companies soliciting money from them to defeat campaign finance reform legislation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In fact, Davis warned the insurance and utility fat cats that if reform passed, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and other citizen groups would find it easier to place reform measures on the ballot!

We’re proud that the Governor recognized our work.

Will the Internet Change This Situation?

What can possibly rescue our democracy from the tyranny of money? All hype aside, it may be the Internet. Over 100 million Americans are online. (Note: that means another 130 million still aren’t).

For public interest groups like ours, with no money for TV ads, the net offers the possibility of reaching way more people than we ever could standing in front of the Fresno County Fair.

Recognizing this, we have revamped our web site to make our extensive libraries of research and analysis readily available.

On our site, people can read more about insurance and health care issues; learn about our reform efforts; download a detailed expose of the people like David Horowitz who get paid to mislead voters; and become directly involved in FTCR’s work.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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