Super PACs have been in the news a lot lately, especially with Stephen Colbert establishing one. He’s trying to show people how money influence politics, of course, and how Super PACs in particular operate. But some are now pushing back, defending the organizations and how they work. E.D. Kain argues that the Super PACs help diminish the influence of the parties.
The argument goes like this: Newt Gingrich is opposed by the Republican party apparatus. If it was up to them, he wouldn’t even be in the race and he would not be a viable candidate if he was. The GOP has literally been telling big republican donors not to donate to Newt. But because Sheldon Adelson, the third richest man in America, has given $10 million to the Winning the Future Super PAC — which is pro-Newt but is not able to coordinate with the campaign, wink wink — he was able to compete with the Restore Our Future Super PAC that supports Mitt (but is also not coordinating with the campaign, wink wink). Kain argues:
On the other hand, I’m sort of thrilled to see the duopoly threatened. Our two-party system really is a threat to American democracy. No power bases are more entrenched than the Democratic and Republican parties. Money be damned, if the party is going to unite around Bush in 2000 then McCain’s chances are null and void. In 2012, the rules have changed.
Is this the first crack in the GOP’s thick armor – an even more stunning change of fortune than the Tea Party sweep in 2010? I wrote recently about how Citizens United helped take at least a little power away from traditional media corporations. Is it also weakening the two-party grip on the political system? Could this be the beginning of the end for lesser-of-two-evils democracy in America?
This is more than a little naive. I agree with him about the downside of giving so much power to political parties, but swapping dependence on the parties for dependence on billionaires with clear public policy interests is a giant step sideways. Kain also argues:
To Chait’s fretting over good government, why should we be more concerned with the influence of one billionaire over the decisions of a hypothetical president Newt Gingrich than with the amassed influence of corporations over the Republican party itself? After all, if Gingrich did anything explicitly to help Sheldon Adelson we’d know about it rather quickly. Everyone would be paying close attention. But the machinations of the Republican party itself and the money which keeps the back-scratching mutual between the party and its benefactors is largely opaque – a perpetual process that, like breathing, we barely notice at all.
Again, terribly naive. Newt wouldn’t have to do anything directly for Adelson. According to reports, Adelson’s biggest policy issue is Israel and Newt has already shifted his positions from a moderate, Obama-like position to the more standard right wing position on Israel (note to slc1: Please don’t turn the comments into yet another debate on Israel policy; it really isn’t relevant to the point of this post). As Larry Lessig argues in his book, the real problem here is not the after-the-fact gifts to big contributors, it is the preliminary shifting of one’s positions in order to appeal to big contributors.
This also ignores the fact that Super PACs don’t have to disclose their donors until after the elections. We know that money came from Adelson because he said it did. There was no requirement for that to be disclosed until after the election is already over. Or they can give the money to a 501(c)(4) with a flowery name, like Americans for Cute Kittens and Clean Air, and that “non-profit” can then give the money to the Super PAC with no disclosure at all.
It also ignores the role of 527s, which can easily swing an election by running millions of dollars worth of “issues ads” that are immune to disclosure laws entirely because they don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate (wink, wink). Those are the ads you see all the time just before an election that often end with “Call Representative so-and-so and tell him you don’t want him to kill kittens and kindly grandmothers.”
Here’s the real danger in all of this. Let’s say a corporation or a rich individual wants a legislator to vote a certain way on a bill, a way that benefits them tremendously. They can now walk into that legislator’s office and say something like this: “If you don’t vote our way on this bill, in the next election we’re going to spend $10 million on ‘issues ads’ in your district to sink your campaign.” The actual amount they can spend has no limits at all and they can do it without ever disclosing that they are the ones who did it. That is incredible power to distort the legislative process in their favor.
Lessig makes a very compelling argument in his book on this matter. We zealously guard voting equality on election days only. On election day, your vote and my vote carries exactly the same weight as Sheldon Adelson, George Soros or David Koch. But in between those election days, those men and hundreds more like them carry millions of times more weight than us.
And bear in mind that all of this not the fault of the Citizens United ruling. 527s and Super PACs existed before that ruling, and wealthy individuals were already allowed to donate unlimited amounts of money to them. Citizens United allowed corporations to do so directly rather than having to set up their own PAC to contribute to the others. It’s just as easy for the owner of the corporation to do it as an individual rather than out of corporation funds directly.
I have become convinced that the influence of money in politics is the single most important issue today. It is the issue that underlies all the other issues, that so distorts the incentives in our political system that we are, for all practical purposes, no longer a democracy. Government is responsive primarily to the rich, not to the people.