As the weather turns colder and the leaves begin to burn bright red and yellow, we are reminded of the many joys of the fall season: delicious apples, Halloween, and the incessant political ads that plague our airwaves.
Since the Citizens United decision in 2010 paved the way for corporate sponsorship of political campaigns, elections have been inundated with derogatory advertisements that attack candidates across the nation. Funding from Super PACs has fueled an ever-increasing number of these ads. Independent expenditure committees, or Super PACs as they are colloquially known, were set up in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and a D.C. Circuit Court ruling on SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission. Super PACs can receive unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations and spend this money electioneering under the pretense of free speech. This ability to influence campaigns gives certain interest groups, whether they are wealthy individuals or corporations, tremendous—and fundamentally undemocratic— leverage over politicians.
An Unfair Advantage
Martin Gilens, speaking at the Citizens Rising Symposium at MIT on September 19, cited his own research in claiming that the preferences of the average citizen have no effective influence on policy. Congress is as likely to pass legislation for a proposal that has the support of 90 percent of average citizens as it is to pass legislation for a proposal with the support of 10 percent. The preferences of economic elites and interest groups, on the other hand, are directly correlated to the likelihood that legislation will be passed. Gilens continued by elaborating on the rise of the Super PAC, and the fact that 0.001 percent of the people in the United States are responsible for 93 percent of the money contributed to Super PACs.
The left has been quick to point the finger at the right, vilifying the Koch brothers as a symbol of the immense power conservative interests now wield via tremendous campaign spending. While donors like the Koch’s have been spending millions of dollars on recent elections, Super PACs that support Democratic candidates have been receiving enormous contributions as well. In fact, according to Opensecrets.org, the three Super PACs who have raised the most money for the 2014 election cycle thus far all support liberal candidates. Because both parties appear to be fully vested in the new system, the question becomes: how can we get money out of politics?
Steps Forward for Reform
Movements from ages past can offer guidance on winning critical reform. The Populist movement of the late 19th century grew from a common sentiment amongst many Americans that they weren’t fairly represented in the democracy. Citizens organized outside of the infrastructure of party politics and developed a Populist base that legitimately threatened the established party system. To dissipate Populist sentiment and appeal, many Populist demands, including the direct election of Senators, were absorbed by the Democratic party and were passed into law.
We need a similar movement of citizens today. According to a survey sponsored by United Republic, an advocacy group, “95 percent of respondents believe it is important that our elected leaders reduce the influence of money and corruption in political elections, and more than 97 percent would support a federal law that imposes ‘tough, new anti-corruption laws for politicians, lobbyists and Super PACs.’” Change in the current system of government will only come if the widespread frustration with the disconnect between voter desires and legislation is channeled into a coherent movement. Average citizens who feel that the elected government isn’t representing their best interests should look for a new outlet to flex their democratic power. A grassroots movement aimed at removing the influence of money from politics and restoring the democracy to the electorate would draw citizens that feel disenfranchised. While it is doubtful that a popular movement would materialize into a successful third party, the movement would draw the attention of the established parties, and one, most likely the Democrats, would accept certain reform ideals as their own to excite and win the popular vote.
Though Democrats currently benefit from large campaign expenditures on the same scale that Republicans do, the Democratic Party receives substantial funding from a more diverse array of sources, both through the national committee and through Super PACs, from labor unions and small donors. Small donors and labor unions usually don’t have the same interests as corporations and wealthy donors, and they represent a larger base of citizens. Unions and small donors thus would have more political power if the influence of money was removed from politics and individual voters had more say in the democracy. To put pressure on the Democrats to seriously tackle the issue of campaign finance reform, these unions and small donors should withhold funding until reform becomes an integral part of the Democratic party platform. Instead, they should channel contributions into organizations that fund candidates who vow to enact substantial reform.
A Super PAC to End All Super PACs
Lawrence Lessig, professor at Harvard Law School, has established his own independent expenditure committee, Mayday PAC, with the goal of funding candidates who will pass campaign finance reform. Speaking at the Citizens Rising Symposium, Lessig expressed his desire to fight the influence of big money with big money. Mayday PAC has been raising money both from small donors and large contributors in an effort to influence several election bids in the midterms this year. Lessig, speaking at the Symposium, says that he feels that it is necessary to “embrace the irony” of influencing politics with money to achieve the goal of removing money from politics; he says, “it’s the only thing we can embrace right now to stand up to the power that makes it impossible for this democracy to function.” Organizations like Mayday represent a far better investment for unions and other donors than do Democratic Super PACs; funds contributed to Mayday will be used to return political power to voters, which will directly benefit these broad-based groups. Additionally, if unions and small donors pull funding from Democrats and shift it to Mayday, Democrats will be forced to accept campaign finance reform as an integral issue to their platform in order to receive the money they need to win.
Through this two-pronged approach of forming a voting base independent from the established two-party infrastructure and directing money away from the coffers of the established parties, it’s possible that enough pressure can be put on one of the parties, most likely the Democrats, to make them seriously tackle the issue of campaign finance reform. From that point, an amendment can be adopted that would give our government constitutional authority to strictly limit the influence of money in politics. Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, spoke with the HPR about an amendment. The proposed amendment would “transfer the authority to regulate money in politics from the Supreme Court to Congress.” It would give Congress the power to “to limit campaign contributions and campaign spending and set up public financing systems and disclosure systems.” While an amendment won’t be happening in the near future, Holman feels that campaign finance reform could become a central issue in the national election for the presidency in 2016 because of the rising public frustration and anger over the control money has on elections. A president who is favorable to reform could greatly impact the current campaign finance system. According to Holman, “the White House is a key leader when it comes to legislature.” The support of the White House “is the most significant factor in trying to get legislation through Congress.”
Though there lies a tough rough ahead, it is still possible for a motivated group of Americans to recognize the corrupting influence of money in politics and unite for reform. We can elect representatives in 2016 who are serious about curbing the power that large donors and corporations now exert over our government. This desire to restore our nation’s government will have to come entirely from average citizens: people of all colors, classes and political leanings who have a desire to preserve the great American tradition of democracy.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons