photo from WikiMedia Commons
Google the term “super PAC” and you’ll find about 8 million hits – seemingly half of which mention Stephen Colbert. He has done more to raise awareness about this new category of political advocacy organization than any other single media figure, though they’re still quite shadowy institutions. If you’re not sure what super PACs are, but you have the sneaking suspicion that they may very well ruin what’s left of our democracy, you’re not alone. However, to understand what these new monstrosities are, and what they do, we have to understand where they came from.
In late January of 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that campaign finance restrictions were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The 5-4 decision, known colloquially as Citizens United, has become the most controversial court case in recent memory, and one that many progressives thought would open the flood gates for corporate cash to influence elections. Congressperson Dennis Kucinich released a statement after the ruling, claiming:
“[This decision] will increase the stranglehold corporations now have over politics. There is no more effective way to concentrate even more money and power in the hands of the wealthy.”
Kucinich’s concerns were echoed in the liberal blogosphere. The court’s decision allows corporations and unions to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections and to directly advocate for or against a candidate, where previously they were restricted by the McCain-Feingold act. Corporations can now spend freely, and the already-clear incentives for incumbents to curry favor with the monied classes have become even more obvious.
For those who see Washington, DC as a sex parlor in which corporate elites and public servants engage in a never-ending series of mutually beneficial tug jobs, Citizens United seemed to be the giant bottle of lube that would smooth and streamline the already well-oiled process.
There were, however, some on the left who thought the court got it somewhat right.
Glenn Greenwald, a progressive blogger, offered a partial defense of Citizens United on First Amendment grounds. He argued that most critics of Citizens United oppose it on the grounds that it will produce bad outcomes, eg, corporations will exercise a stranglehold on politics. This criticism, however, is not based in law. Greenwald cites examples of times when restricting speech would create positive outcomes – banning the KKK if you’re a liberal, banning youtube videos of Anwar Al-Awlaki if you’re a neocon, banning the Communist party if you’re in the John Birch Society – but that speech is still protected by the First Amendment. If restricting speech is unconstitutional, it’s unconstitutional, regardless of the outcome.
Also, Greenwald couldn’t see how things could get much worse:
“Corporations find endless ways to circumvent current restrictions — their armies of PACs, lobbyists, media control, and revolving-door rewards flood Washington and currently ensure their stranglehold — and while this decision will make things marginally worse, I can’t imagine how it could worsen fundamentally.”
Well, never bet against the ever-continuing decline of democratic institutions in America. In the summer of 2010 the FEC issued two opinions stemming from the then-recent Citizens United ruling that allowed for the creation of super PACs – officially called independent expenditure-only committees. These new entities could spend unlimited amounts of money and could tell voters to cast their ballot for a specific candidate – something traditional PACs are barred from doing.
Spending in 2010 shot to unprecedented levels for a midterm cycle. Independent groups, including super PACs, spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on that year’s elections. Just this past week a super PAC associated with Mitt Romney filed a report saying they’ve raised $12 million in the first half of this year. Obama is planning to raise $1 billion for his reelection campaign. These numbers are staggering, even in the age of trillion dollar bailouts.
It’s not hard to see the corrosive effect ever-increasing fundraising campaigns have on our politics. Both parties will suckle at the teat of Wall Street if we expect our candidates to raise millions and billions of dollars. It is inconceivable that any candidate will impose meaningful restrictions on the financial sector, or, god forbid, prosecute the criminals who nearly blew up the entire world economy, if they are dependent upon them for money. Those criminals are the ones paying $35,000 a plate at fundraisers for both parties.
Citizens United and super PACs didn’t create a new paradigm in American politics. As Dick Durbin said previous to the ruling, “banks own” the congress. No, super PACs are more like the one giant monster who emerges from the underside of a cliff just as the hero is at his weakest, a monster who dwarfs all the orcs in the regular bad-guy army – a sort of reverse deus ex machina. But don’t expect the cavalry to come riding in at the end of this movie. They’re down at the Goldman Sachs building begging for spare change.
Article Written by: John Knefel