Ever since the Citizens United ruling in January, 2010, "independent expenditures" have flooded into political campaigns from Super PACs. Super PACs finance TV and radio attack ads that are generally negative, very often misleading, and frequently outright lies. And by the way, “independent expenditures” is a complete misnomer. I leave it to you to decide whether the supreme court majority was complicit in the political corruption or merely stupid to think that political donors would spend tens to hundreds of millions of dollars and not figure out how to coordinate it with the campaigns.
The bulk of the independent expenditure money is timed to influence voters during the final days before voting, leaving no opportunity for an attacked candidate to respond or for a voter to learn the other side, or the truth. Outright lies and slander are common, and apparently perfectly legal. We may as well get used to it, because this is the foreseeable future of American elections. Look for our already corrupt government to continue to only get worse as more and more private money is poured into the political system from rich patrons looking to gain influence. I won’t argue here whether American government is corrupt - that’s not really in question, though I do welcome your comments if you strongly disagree.
But isn’t there something that we can do? Maybe campaign finance reform? Perhaps provide public election financing? A constitutional amendment to dehumanize those pesky corporations? Emigrate to a saner land? Let's set emigration aside for the moment, and consider the more impossible options.
1. Campaign finance reform legislation has been passed several times over the past century or so, always trying to control contributions or expenditures and reduce corruption. It makes wonderful sense; it has great public appeal; and it has always been a dismal failure. Regardless how much bipartisan enthusiasm has surrounded it, every reform legislation has been made moot before the next election cycle is over. In fact, the problem generally gets worse whenever politicians and their funding sources are challenged to come up with new schemes. McCain-Feingold is a recent example at the Federal level: great idea, complete flop. A voter could be excused for thinking these bills are cynically put in place just to make the corruption more profitable.
2. Ok, if campaign finance reform won’t work, how about Clean Elections or Fair Elections public campaign financing programs. This is a different type of reform that avoids the trap of putting easily dodged limits on political expenditures and contributions. Instead, public financing systems provide public money to candidates who volunteer to raise either no private money at all, or else only very small contributions. These programs actually work, and have proved effective in state governments across the country for almost 15 years. They engage middle class and working class candidates and small donors, and significantly increase turnout and diversity of political participation. The systems are under constant attack, of course, and recent supreme court rulings have weakened the successful "Clean Elections" model that has been used in Arizona and Maine for 15 years. The big problem with Clean and Fair Elections systems is that no legislature is willing to pass them. Why would they, when they have figured out how to win under the current system? That’s a huge problem in states, and quite possibly insurmountable for Congress.
3. And what about those corporate “persons” with first amendment rights, can’t we find a way to dehumanize them? (NOTE: for now, a corporation becomes a person only when duly registered with the state, but legislation is coming that will declare corporate humanity the moment two people (of opposite sex) put their minds together to conceive of one.) The surprising news since Citizens United is that corporations may not be the biggest problem after all. In his recent column, “We Don’t Need a Constitutional Amendment,” Jay Mandle has compiled data showing that most of the Super PAC money since Citizens United has come, not from corporations, but from super-rich individuals. If Mandle is right, the constitutional amendment efforts to end corporate personhood (such as Move To Amend) will be as ineffective as so many of the campaign finance reform efforts have been for the past century.
So what’s a voter and concerned citizen to do? We’ll consider that in a future posting. If we can’t figure it out, there’s always the emigration option.