A perverted dream
In 2010, the Supreme Court broke the American democratic process. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission determined that as individual campaign expenditures were a form of constitutionally protected free speech (decided in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo) and corporations and institutions were collections of individuals, the government could not restrict expenditures made by corporations or unions. Later that year, the ruling was applied to Speechnow.org v. Federal Election Commission, and the court removed restrictions on Political Action Committee donations; corporations and unions could give unlimited, undisclosed amounts to what became known as “super PACs,” organizations independent of candidates that pay for ads to support them. These two rulings have greatly undermined America’s electoral system, putting huge amounts of power and influence in the hands of the already powerful and influential super wealthy, and they must be reversed.
The effects of this ruling are immediately obvious. In 2008, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama raised what was at the time an unthinkably large amount—$750 million—a sum that dwarfed John McCain’s $370 million. This election cycle, in a post-Citizens United world, the Romney campaign will be raising an estimated $800 million. If that sounds large, it shouldn’t. Conservative super PACs will be raising $1 billion this election. The Koch brothers, an incredibly wealthy, entrepreneurial pair, are personally donating $400 million dollars to super PACs designed to increase the Republican majority in the House and seize the Senate and the presidency.
The effects of the floodgates opened in 2010 were felt as early as the Republican primary. Sheldon Anderson, who found his fortune in the casino industry, spent millions single-handedly and made Newt Gingrich a contender. When Rick Santorum won in Iowa and subsequently was named a force to be reckoned with, it was thanks to the contributions made by a super PAC funded by multi-millionaire Foster Friess, who funneled millions into the Santorum campaign. In our own Missouri, Todd Akin, who has lost the funding of many super PACs and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is being kept afloat by a cadre of social conservatives he met with in late August in Tampa. And as time goes on, Romney is enjoying a surge in support; Ohio, Virginia and Florida, once all leaning Obama, are now too close to call in every poll, and some give Romney a slight advantage.
The explanation for his rise can be found in spending. Romney has thrown himself into the fund-raising business, accepting donations from all sources from the get-go and working closely with conservative-aligned super PACs. The Obama campaign, by contrast, was until very recently not accepting corporate donations—until it became clear that his campaign was being embarrassingly outspent. Obama, to his credit, continues to distance himself from supportive groups, and the main Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, hopes to spend $100 million. The most pessimistic projections have the Romney campaign and conservative groups outspending their Democratic counterparts by 2:1.
This is an election that is all about money. It is an election that, come November, may have inaugurated a new era in American politics. If the Republicans increase their House holdings and take the Senate and the presidency, it will not have been because of ideological superiority or greater resonance with the American people. It will have been because of outside spending that gave much more to the Republicans than it did to the Democrats.
Unfortunately, Supreme Court rulings are the final word on constitutionality. If the Supreme Court says corporations can give unlimited, undisclosed amounts to super PACs, then they can. There is, however, one thing policymakers can do to alter Supreme Court decisions: constitutional amendments. At the end of July, House Democratic leaders held a press conference in which they announced their desire to create a constitutional amendment addressing campaign finance that overruled Citizens United and Speechnow.org. President Obama has also voiced his support for such an amendment. It’s not easy; via the only used method, 67 percent of the House and the Senate, as well as 75 percent of state legislatures, must support an amendment, but barring a decision by the Supreme Court—whose decision-making history over the past 40 years is not encouraging—it is absolutely necessary to dilute the power of the mega donor in American politics.