Article — From the April 2012 issue

It’s a Rich Man’s World

How billionaire backers pick America

While visiting Kansas City last December, I read a local newspaper story lamenting the gradual transformation of Missouri into a reliably Republican citadel—a red state, as we like to say. In the past, I read, Missouri had been different from its more partisan neighbors. It had been a “bellwether” state that “reflected national trends,” rather than delivering votes for any particular party. But now all that was over, and I assumed the article would go on to mourn the death of judicious public reason—the tradition of giving rival arguments a hearing and testing them with that famous “Show Me” skepticism.

I was wrong. Forget the death of open-mindedness. What was actually being mourned that day in the Kansas City Star was a possible loss of advertising revenue by the state’s TV stations. If Missouri was no longer a battleground state, then the two parties and their various backers would no longer fight their expensive electronic war over the airwaves between St. Louie and St. Joe, and “spending on TV ads in the state [would] plummet.”

This was the concern, not some airy nonsense about ideology or polarization. That would have been a mere matter of opinion, while this was so hard and so real it came with a price tag. Here is what Missouri’s creeping Kansification was going to cost: in the last election cycle, the national candidates and their allied PACs blew almost $21 million on advertising in the state. Given Missouri’s tilt to the right, every last penny of a similar windfall might be lost. Even worse: Missourians had squandered their battleground status just before what promises to be the biggest-spending political year ever. As the paper noted, campaign expenditures are predicted to skyrocket between now and November.

Thanks to their own ideological stubbornness, Missourians—or, more accurately, Missouri broadcasters—will now miss out on all that. The Star reassured readers that the hammer blows inflicted on their local FCC license holders “would not be fatal.” Yet the ultimate lesson was clear: political conviction comes at a high cost. Unemployment in Missouri stands at 8 percent, and like other Midwestern states, it has been hemorrhaging jobs and industries for decades. Now it has gone and turned away the one bonanza that even loser states, as long as they remain appropriately fickle, have a shot at winning: campaign finance.

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