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The New Pay-As-You-Go Landscape of American ‘Democracy’
Posted on May 16, 2013
By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch
More than ever, a serious Senate or White House bid is dependent not on climbing the party ranks, but on winning the support of a few wealthy bankrollers. In fact, it’s no longer an exaggeration to say that while the political parties still officially pick the candidates for office, the power increasingly lies with the elites of the political donor class.
Super PACs, just three years old, are now a fixture, not a novelty. They’ve become de rigueur for candidates running at the federal, state, and even local level. Want to scare off potential primary challengers? A super PAC with millions in the bank will help. Need to blast away at your opponent with negative ads without tarnishing your own reputation? Let a super PAC do the dirty work. Any candidate running for office begins with a to-do list, and with each month, getting a super PAC and making friends in the dark money universe rises higher on those lists.
Super PACs and their wealthy donors are also stoking civil wars within the parties. At the moment, they have been springing up to offer cover to politicians who vote a certain way, or stake out traditionally unpopular positions. For instance, Republicans for Immigration Reform, a relatively new super PAC, says it will spend millions to defend GOP politicos who take a moderate stance on immigration reform. And another super PAC, bankrolled by hedge fund investor Paul Singer, intends to spend big money to push more Republicans toward the middle on same-sex marriage. But there are also vigorous tea-party-style super PACs pushing their politicians toward the fringes. Each faction of the GOP is getting its own set of super PACs, and that means an already contentious fight for the future of the party could get far bloodier.
Democrats could find themselves in a money-fueled internal struggle, too. Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund investor worth $1.3 billion, says he’s sick of seeing climate change neglected in campaigns. He now plans to use his vast wealth to elevate it into a banner issue. In a recent primary in Massachusetts, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch for supporting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Lynch’s opponent, Congressman Ed Markey, a leading House environmentalist, went on to win the primary, but Steyer’s intervention raised plenty of eyebrows about possible Democrat-on-Democrat combat in 2014.
Meanwhile, as the recent Democracy Alliance and Koch retreats show, millionaires and billionaires are revving up to take ever-greater control of the political process via secretive nonprofits. In April, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled FWD.us, a quasi-dark-money outfit created to give Silicon Valley a greater political presence in Washington. It has already raised $25 million.
Right now, the best avenues for fired-up billionaires exist outside the traditional political parties. The Supreme Court could change that. In a case called McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, the court is considering whether to demolish the overall aggregate limit on how much a donor can give to candidates and parties. If the court rules in favor of Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon, and perhaps goes on to eliminate contribution limits to candidates and parties altogether, super PACs could go out of style faster than Crocs. Donors won’t need them. They’ll give their millions straight to the Democrats or the Republicans and that will be that.
There is an important backdrop to all of these changes, and that’s the increase in income inequality in this country. Just as the incredibly wealthy are given the freedom to flood the political system with money, they’ve got more and more money to spend. Our lopsided economic recovery affords a glimpse of that growing inequality gap: from 2009 to 2011, the average wealth of the richest 7% of American households climbed by almost 30%, while the wealth of the remaining 93% of households actually declined by 4%. (So much for that “recovery.”)
Can there be any question that this democracy of ours is nearing dangerous territory, if we’re not already there? Picture the 2016 or 2020 election campaigns and, barring a new wave of campaign reforms, it’s not hard to see a tiny minority of people exerting a massive influence on our politics simply by virtue of bank accounts. There is nothing small-d democratic about that. It flies in the face of one of the central premises of this country of ours, equality, including political equality—the concept that all citizens stand on an equal footing with one another when it comes to having their say on who represents them and how government should work.
Increasingly, it looks like before the rest of us even have our say, before you enter the voting booth, issues, politics, and the politicians will have been winnowed, vetted, and predetermined by the wealthiest Americans. Think of it as a new definition of politics: the democracy of the wealthy, who can fight it out with each other inside and outside the political parties with little reference to you.
In the meantime, the more those of modest means feel drowned out by the money of a tiny minority, the less connected they will feel to the work of government, and the less they will trust elected officials and government as an institution. It’s a formula for tuning out, staying home, and starving whatever’s left of our democracy.
I caught a glimpse of this last November, when I spoke to a class of students at Radford University in Virginia, a state blanketed with super PAC attack ads and dark money in 2012. Over and over, students told me how disgusted they were by all the vitriol they heard when they turned on the TV or the radio. Most said that they ended up ignoring the campaigns; a few were so put off they didn’t bother to vote. “They’re all bought and sold anyway,” one student told me in front of the entire class. “Why would my vote make any difference?”
Andy Kroll covers money in politics for Mother Jones magazine, and is an associate editor at TomDispatch, which he writes for regularly. He lives in Washington, D.C., the only place in America where people freely discuss campaign financing at happy hour.
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Copyright 2013 Andy Kroll
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