Home > Politics > SuperPacs and Cynicism and Disgust with the Democratic Process

SuperPacs and Cynicism and Disgust with the Democratic Process

I don’t know if the five Supreme Court justices who signed off on the Citizen’s United case have been reading the newspapers and watching cable, but the effect of the ruling has been on full display over the past month and things are not going according to the high court’s rose-colored-glasses view that unlimited political expenditures are harmless expressions of free speech.

The ruling that gave corporations and labor unions the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns assumed a number of things.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, denied it would “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”   And that was because the public would know where the money was coming from and because candidates and so-called “Super Pacs” (PAC= Political Action Committees) would never coordinate.  Please.

The candidacy of Newt Gingrich was destroyed in Iowa with $4 million in withering negative ads from PACS supporting Mitt Romney.  The brief Gingrich resurgence following the death of the Herman Cain campaign was sliced and diced by the assault, cutting the former House Speaker’s poll numbers by half. 

Direct coordination with the Romney campaign would be illegal, of course.  But as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus points out, there’s darned near a shadow campaign staff operating the Romney PAC called “Restore our Future.” 

The committee is run by Carl Forti, political director of Romney’s 2008 campaign. Its treasurer is Charles Spies, the Romney 2008 general counsel. Its fundraiser, Steve Roche, headed the Romney 2012 finance team until jumping to the super PAC last summer. And to underscore the flimsiness of the PAC’s supposed independence, Romney himself has spoken at “Restore Our Future” events.

Yet up-to-date information about who is bankrolling this effort will not be available until the end of January, by which point four states will have voted and Romney may have the nomination wrapped up.

And it’s not just Republicans.  Former Obama aides run a PAC called Priorities USA which has already been releasing nasty anti-Romney ads.  One can only imagine the slime and dirt that will fill our TV screens and radio dials this fall from all the Super Pacs that are out there .   

In a very insightful article in Slate.com, Dahlia Lithwick, writes that even some state courts are beginning to question the wisdom of the Citizen’s United ruling.  The Montana Supreme Court, for example, has recently ruled by a vote of 5-2 that corporations are not people and that to assume unlimited political expenditures are benign goes against well over a century and a half of practice in Montana state politics.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath dove deep into that history, ranging back over the “tumultuous years … marked by rough contests for political and economic domination primarily in the mining center of Butte, between mining and industrial enterprises controlled by foreign trusts or corporations.” Noting that, back in the last Gilded Age, Montana’s wealthy “Copper Kings” bought judges and senators, picked the location of the capital, and owned the media, McGrath pointed to Montana’s vast size, sparse population, low-cost elections, and long history of having its resources plundered by foreign corporate interests to emphasize that the state has a compelling interest in maintaining its ban.

The sad fact is that negative campaigning and advertising are hideously effective and only nominally based on any discernible truth.  To not be able to identify who’s putting up the money for these organizations that put out these ads means there is absolutely no accountability for them.  Nor will we be able to tell how the donations by anonymous individuals impact the candidate once they become an office holder and are in a position to make public policy that may benefit those contributors.

At a critical juncture in our history and our economy, when fundamental philosophical views need to be aired, debated and decided- we may, instead, be reacting to and basing our votes on the primal, negative personal attacks of politicians on one another.

That we will be hip-deep in this kind of swill from now until November can only increase the already deep cynicism the public feels about politics and government.  Watching how it’s actually playing out, a great public disservice may have been committed in the name of free speech when the Supreme Court made the Citizen’s United ruling. It is eroding -not helping- the function of a healthy democracy.

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  1. January 5, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    And it’s only just begun. As everyone (with huge sums of money and an interest to serve) figures out how to test the limits and full implications of the Citizen’s United ruling, the public forum for discourse over the core concerns and choices facing us at this ‘critical juncture in our history and our economy’–as you’ve identified it–will become dominated (perhaps decisively) by only those who can pay to play. Thanks for making the concrete link between something we can see playing out right now before our very eyes with the otherwise potentially abstract theoretical consequences of the horrendous Citizens United decision. This is why you are a journalist and I am a crank.

  2. January 5, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    A “crank,” my ass. You’re brilliant.

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