How secret spending and super PACs subvert our republic¬
On Election Day, America evaded an explosion. The escalation of the unlimited, secret campaign contributions arms race, totaling an astonishing $1 billion, seemed unable to buoy sinking candidates propped up by much-feared super PACs.
American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s Super PAC, had a one percent success rate after spending $103 million, and Sheldon G. Adelson has little to show after spending $53 million of his own wealth. But the system allowing the corrupting influence of unlimited, anonymous contributions remains intact.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” as writer Aldous Huxley once said.
Republicans are in existential crisis, poignantly and pettily illustrated by Bill O’Reilly’s lamenting that “the white establishment is now the minority” and reeling from the realization that American people are not nearly as bribable as their politicians. A platform doling outdated social bromides, preaching belligerence and braggadocio as foreign policy, and peddling thinly veiled kickbacks to major donors as economic policy was self-defeating and suicidal, no matter how much money was poured into resuscitating it.
That Republicans managed to lose seats in both the House and the Senate, despite outspending Democrats $102 million to $70 million on House races and $135 million to $89 million on Senate races, is more a symptom of the ideological radicalization of the Republican Party than of the public’s distaste for the broken campaign finance system. Money buys advertisements and access, but winning elections requires a coherent, relevant vision and a voice of reason that Republicans sorely missed.
The deluge of money that strongly benefited Republicans in this election season is the result of the Supreme Court’s two recent decisions in the Citizens United and SpeechNOW.org cases, which allowed unlimited independent expenditures by corporations, unions, and people. These rulings have been seized upon to form Super PACs and dark money groups. How advocates of the expansion of the Citizens United ruling could, in good conscience, claim that unlimited, anonymous donations secretly fueling political campaigns is in any way beneficial or even reconcilable with the core principles of our republic is beyond me.
That Karl Rove can disingenuously claim that his organization Crossroads GPS is a non-political “social welfare” group, even protected as a non-profit, is so farcical that it calls into question the integrity of our current flimsy campaign finance regulation. Rove’s groups squandered nearly $300 million trying unsuccessfully to convince Americans to stomach a terrible presidential candidate.
Yet it’s not as if President Obama, beneficiary of a near billion-dollar campaign, remained above the fray. Rather than simply carpet-bombing swing states with ads, the Obama campaign was aided by a brilliant ring of behavioral scientists and a robust grassroots apparatus that leveraged modern technologies—advantages that Republicans will surely not ignore in the next election cycle. The current campaign finance system is awash with an unregulated deluge of money that draws both Republican and Democratic candidates into an ever-escalating arms race: The $2.1 billion-dollar presidential campaigns represent a near quadrupling from the 2000 election, pushing our politicians to prefer contributions to constituents.
Incumbents are increasingly forced to devote more time pursuing donors in order to avoid being overwhelmed by their opponents in the ever-looming next election. “Thirty to 70 percent of the average member of Congress’s time is spent on fundraising…which is incredible if you think about it,” remarked Representative John P. S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) at a lecture given at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. It’s not as if cold-calling contributors fixes an increasingly volatile Middle East, the looming fiscal cliff, or climate change.
Our politicians are beholden to their donors, a loyalty that drives a wedge between legislators and their constituents, diluting trust in our most respected institutions. This fractured trust is highlighted by duplicitous Republicans, who are staunch supply-siders when advocating for huge tax cuts for their ultra-wealthy donors but wide-eyed Keynesians when disparaging the $500 billion in cuts to the Department of Defense, which will hurt generously donating defense contractors.
America has a regrettably long legacy of corrupt campaign finance, from George Washington buying $8,000 worth of alcohol for voters to Richard Nixon’s secret stash that funded Watergate. Politicians should fear that the burgeoning dependence on special interests and wealthy donors is a recurrence of this sad history. But as Aldous Huxley discerned, “That we do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”
Idrees Kahloon ’16 lives in Weld Hall. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.