Amidst an increasingly nasty lead-up to the upcoming South Carolina Republican primary, yesterday saw the release of an attack ad accusing the overwhelming favorite candidate Mitt Romney of being a serial killer.
If this campaign ad seems a little bit odd or over the top it is because it was released to support Stephen Colbert, an influential political satirist in his campaign for the South Carolina leg of the Republican presidential nomination process. Colbert’s public persona is an embodiment of all the inherent contradictions of an ultra-patriotic, free market, big business loving, traditional values TV Pundit and his comedic modus operandi is to play out the rationale of conservative politics to its most illogical conclusions.
The ad – entitled ‘Attack in B Minor for Strings’ – is an exercise in precisely that. His position that Mitt Romney is a serial killer draws on the notion that ‘corporations are people’. This is not an out of context misquote or a send-up of Republican hyperbole, rather it accurately reflects the current legal standing of corporations in America. Late in 2010, a case was brought before the Supreme Court by Citizens United – an obscure conservative advocacy group – against the Federal Election Commission, who had enforced a law limiting how much could be spent on advertising campaigns targeting politicians, in that instance, Hilary Clinton. Citizens United argued that the advocacy of non-profit political groups was an expression of people’s opinions and limiting how much they were allowed to spend to promote those opinions was in violation of their constitutional first amendment right to free speech. By ruling in favour of Citizens United the Supreme Court effectively overturned key parts of the existing bipartisan campaign finance law limiting how much independent groups could spend during elections. This paved the way for massive amounts of corporate money being poured into the election process.
Technically Stephen Colbert did not fund his South Carolina attack ad. Technically he is not even allowed to know anything about it. Since the Citizens United ruling Colbert has been satirizing the new loop hole created allowing ‘political action committees’, known as Super PACs,to raise unlimited funds for political campaigning. He did this by himself appearing before the FEC and forming a Super PAC called ‘Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow’ and promising to wreak havoc into the upcoming elections using viewer donations.
A poll appearing last week put Colbert ahead of low-ranked Republican candidates in the upcoming South Carolina primary and gave him a gift opportunity to further satirize the problems with the campaign funding process. Quite probably the greatest fallacy of Super PACs is their supposed independence. Super PACS have to be independent and in no way co-ordinated with any candidate on behalf of whom they campaign. In practice this is not the case. Mitt Romney’s campaign director, for instance, co-owns an island with the treasurer of the pro-Romney Super PAC ‘Restore Our Future’. Maybe they don’t discuss electoral strategy when hanging out on their island together. Safe to say they would have a pretty good idea of what works for each other.
In order to possibly run for the South Carolina nomination Colbert had to become ‘independent’ of his Super PAC. In an elaborate ceremony overseen by his lawyer and former head of the FEC, Colbert transferred the Super PAC to Jon Stewart, the host of a partner satirical television show that airs immediately prior to his own. Colbert started as a reporter on Jon Stewart’s show and two have previously hosted the Emmy’s together, so the purported independence is quite obviously fatuous. The even renamed it ‘The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC’. It was genius television. In less than 10 minutes Colbert had highlighted the dubious workings of the electoral process and the ease with which money can buy influence in American politics, all the while being laugh out loud funny.
Colbert’s candidacy is all an exercise as his name will not be placed on Republican ballot papers. This is similar to 2007 when Colbert attempted to run in the Democratic South Carolina primary and despite serious poll number he was blocked by the party’s state executive council. In this earlier campaign Colbert was sponsored by Doritos corn chips and they often featured prominently in his campaign speeches, declaring at one point that ‘he would be as good for the country as Doritos are for your body.’
So while his Presidential bid may not be serious, he has bought some serious airtime and public attention to this issue of campaign financing and the rail-roading of the US electoral process using unlimited corporate funds. And its funny.