"Democracy for Sale": Dr. Louisa Imperiale on the Political-Media Complex in Campaign Finance and Broadcast Regulation in US Elections

Congratulations to Dr. Louisa Imperiale, who successfully defended her dissertation on April 24th, 2018, titled, Democracy for Sale: A Critical Examination of the Political-Media Complex at work in Campaign Finance and Political Broadcast Regulation in U.S. Presidential Elections from 1976 to 2016.

Chaired by Internet Governance Lab Faculty Fellow and Chair of the Communication Studies division at SOC Dr. Aram Sinnreich, Louisa's committee also included Internet Governance Lab Faculty Fellow Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, Professor Charles Lewis of AU's School of Communication, and Dr. David Karpf, Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs and Director of the Media and Strategic Communication Program at George Washington University. 

Dr. Imperiale's dissertation abstract reads:

This dissertation is a critical examination of the political-media complex (PMC) in the United States, as observed along three currents: philosophical, historical, and political. The development of this symbiotic ecosystem is charted longitudinally, with an emphasis on the forty years of reform, regulation, and deregulation of campaign finance and political broadcasting that followed the Watergate scandal. Attention is focused on this network of media and political actors, and their synergistic architecture of power, as observed through the eleven presidential elections that followed the post-Watergate reform movement, from 1976 to 2016.  Situating this problem as a crisis of political communication rather than political science, the conventional voter-centric “rational choice” model is rejected; instead, the perspectives found in critical media studies, political economy of media, and science and technology studies are employed for a more holistic view of the landscape and outlook of this industrial knowledge-power structure. This work culminates with a multifaceted mandate for actionable intervention, and normative recommendations for reform at the regulatory level are put forth.

The contemporary debate about the issue of “money in politics” writ large hinges on whether or not money – specifically, the spending of it for purposes of political persuasion – should be considered speech, and therefore left largely unregulated lest it impinge on First Amendment rights.  This debate strikes at the core of a dialectical tension within our democracy: liberty versus equality.  Throughout this work, the empirical reality is held in contrast to normative democratic theory.  

The ever-increasing costs of federal political campaigns in the U.S. have created a troubling culture of “permanent campaigning” and tipped the balance of power in the White House and in Congress away from elected leaders, and their constituents, toward the wealthy donors – individual, corporations, and special interest groups – who fund their electoral victories. How do we fix this inappropriate and destructive power dynamic? If we take a step back to investigate why the cost of political campaigning has skyrocketed over the past forty years, we land at the doorstep of a clear culprit: the astronomical cost of political advertising on broadcast television. 

This dissertation seeks to examine how and why the broadcast networks have been allowed to subvert their public interest obligation and profit off of American elections, and what legislative and advocacy attempts have been made to rein in their influence. For this investigation, archival data, secondary sources, running records and recollections are all employed to present as accurate a portrayal as possible of the political-media complex at work in each of the eleven presidential elections since 1976.  Particular attention is given to the myriad policy interventions – regulatory, legislative, and judicial – and their often unexpected outcomes. 

In conclusion, this study explores the need for a new theoretical paradigm by which to understand the role of broadcast media as a powerful political entity in its own right, and its dominant, nonpareil role in American politics. Finally, normative recommendations will be put forth on what can be done to mitigate the powerful gatekeeping role of the broadcast media within our political system, thereby dramatically reducing the amount of money needed to campaign. By chipping away at the exorbitant cost of campaigning for the presidency and advocating multiple new channels for transparency, hopefully the power, influence, and leverage of campaign funders can be diminished, returning political power to elected officials and, ultimately restoring the political voice of the American voter. Acknowledging that money will never be completely eradicated from the political process, these recommendations are offered in the spirit of restoring a sense of equilibrium currently lacking in U.S. politics. 

 From left: Dr. Aram Sinnreich, Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, Dr. Louisa Imperiale, Dr. David Karpf, and Professor Charles Lewis.

From left: Dr. Aram Sinnreich, Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, Dr. Louisa Imperiale, Dr. David Karpf, and Professor Charles Lewis.

You can follow Dr. Imperiale's work (and congratulate her yourself) on Twitter @LouisaImperiale.