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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

This chapter discusses the legal landscape that allows for the election of well-branded candidates over truthful, but less well-packaged political opponents. It describes a 2018 Rand report that alleges that the United States is suffering from truth decay. Politicians going back to the first American presidents shaded the truth, but Trump’s 2016 campaign seemed particularly rife with misstatements, deceptions and outright lies. This mendacity has continued into the first two years of the Trump presidency. From lying about everything from the size of his inaugural crowd to the state of the US economy to the sources of his own wealth, Trump has been caught out in so many lies that the Washington Post had to create a new category of the “bottomless Pinocchio” to capture the depths of his lies. This chapter also notes that the Supreme Court invalidates laws against lying, thereby enabling it.

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

An example of the branding of a legal concept is what the Roberts Supreme Court has done to the meaning of the word “corruption” in both campaign finance and white collar crime cases. Before it got its hands on this word, “corruption” had a very broad meaning. But the Roberts Court has branded “corruption” to be a very thin reed of a word. The basic branding that the Supreme Court has repeated is that “political corruption only means quid pro quo exchanges.” This fences out broader ideas of what a corrupt political system comprises. From Randall v. Sorrell to McCutcheon v. FEC, and from Skilling to McDonnell, the Supreme Court has changed what counts as corruption. And as this chapter explores, politicians accused of criminally abusing their positions of power have been eager to use these cases to argue to lower courts that they should not be punished.

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

Corporations have two contradictory laws to follow from the Supreme Court. Under Citizens United v. FEC, corporations have the right to spend an unlimited amount of money on political ads; meanwhile, under Beaumont, corporations are still banned from giving political donations directly to federal candidates. This chapter shows the data of publicly traded companies using their Citizens United right to fund American Super PACs from 2010_18. This spending is heavily skewed toward Republicans. But this political spending is also risky because customers and investors who support Democrats may reject a corporation for its political position. This chapter also notes how corporations can get unwittingly dragged into political fights, including being used by a polarizing politician; and the risks that companies may run if they are sucked into a political scandal like supporting a candidate that turns out to be embarrassingly racist.

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

This chapter discusses the growing partisan divide in the United States between conservatives and liberals. It notes the findings of cognitive scientists, who have observed some heritability of partisan preferences, and evidence that liberals and conservatives simply perceive the world differently from one another. It further explores how “nature” is reinforced by “nurture,” including the fact that many individuals insulate themselves into self-reaffirming partisan bubbles or information silos. It then touches on how partisans define themselves and how they frequently misperceive the members of the opposing party. Politicians frequently try to microtarget voters with messages to appeal to specific subsets of the electorate. These narrowcast messages can often contradict the political messages of campaign broadcasts. Aspects of microtargeting voters go back to mailing political messages. Today, microtargeted messages can hit voters in their social media feeds. Aggressive microtargeting was particularly used by the Trump campaign in 2016.

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

As soon as televisions were in American living rooms, politicians - including those running for president - began using commercial branding techniques to sell candidates to voters. As early as the Eisenhower 1952 campaign, techniques like the use of the jingle, “I like Ike” helped sell Ike to the electorate. These techniques would be used again and again to package successful candidates. JFK used the song “High Hopes” to sell himself to voters. Over time, campaigns also learned that a key ingredient for success was to brand political opponents as thoroughly unappealing or dangerous. In 1964, LBJ painted Goldwater as a madman with the “Daisy” ad, among others. TV even helped Nixon win in 1968. In 1988, George H.W. Bush painted his opponent Dukakis as pathologically soft on crime. And candidates who were not comfortable being marketed on TV, like Adlai Stevenson and Michael Dukakis, were at a significant electoral disadvantage.

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy

On top of the techniques used on television to broadcast political messages to vast swaths of the electorate, computer technologies allow politicians to narrowcast microtargeted messages to voters. Not only can political ads be viewed on desktop computers, but by 2016, 80 percent of the US population had a smartphone that could play political messages on the go. Politicians like Bill Clinton were initially slow to cleverly exploit these new technologies. But by 2008, these channels were being used in new ways to encourage voters to register to vote, to vote early, to vote by mail and to vote in person. These technologies were also harnessed to spread a pro-Obama music video for a song called “Yes We Can,” which ended with an exhortation to vote. They can additionally be used for pernicious purposes, like suppressing the vote, which appeared to be a tactic used by the Trump campaign in 2016.