Tag Archives: Citizens United v. Federal Election

Election Lessons for Democracy

Halleluiah! The elections of 2012 are over and the next election cycle does not begin until yesterday.

The elections of 2012 were not just about who won and who lost, but about what won and what lost. Viewed from this perspective, the election can teach us a lot about the modern workings and the health of our democracy.

The retrospective on the election is now focused on the re-election victory of President Obama, but there was an even more important victory and that was the reaffirmation and defense of democracy in America. The campaigns for President, Senate and House of Representatives were more like the stage pieces that are used by magicians to divert the attention of the audience while they perform sleight-of-hand tricks. The real story of the 2012 elections, were the sleight-of-hand tricks employed by an elite few who wanted to shape – even restrict – democracy into the image of what they believe it should be.

A Double-Barreled Victory for Democracy

This battle for democracy was fought on two fronts: The impact of a tsunami of money from wealthy individuals and corporations washing over the campaigns and an attack on the fundamental right to participate in the democratic process itself – the right to vote. The good news is that the moneyed interests and those who sought to limit democracy by suppressing voting rights both lost – at least for now.

The 2012 elections were the first to be conducted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The crux of that judgment was to give corporations and other entities carte blanche to contribute unlimited amounts of cash and effort to political activity. The basis for the decision was the application of the First Amendment right of free speech, by declaring that “corporations are people, too.” (This ruling included companies incorporated in America, but with foreign ownership; allowing these foreign companies to contribute unlimited amounts of money into American political activity.)

The loathsome result? Individual and corporate contributions directly to candidates remain limited. On the other hand, the floodgates were opened allowing a storm-surge of unrestrained contributions by wealthy individuals and corporations. Billions gushed into entities like Super PACs that were created specifically to “independently” support individual candidates and issues. (Some will point out that unions were also freed to make unlimited contributions. While true, that is like saying the CEO and mail room worker both have the same right to contribute to a campaign; but there is a slight differences in resources here.)

The fear of many was that when the Supreme Court granted the rights of “peoplehood” to corporations, that democracy itself would be plundered by the plutocratic mentality of wealthy individuals and corporations; but it was not. (Although, not for lack of effort by the moneyed interests.) Despite the estimates that up to $6 billion dollars were expended on the election – most contributed by wealthy individuals and corporations – for the most part their efforts failed.

By his own humble estimate, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson showered as much as $100 million dollars in support of eight candidates – all of them lost. Karl Rove (Do you think he might be Don Trump’s bastard child?) who controlled the Super PAC American Crossroads, spent upwards of $400 million dollars contributed by wealthy donors and corporations. The American Crossroads funders had to stand by and watch as virtually every candidate and social issue they supported lost. All Mr. Rove could offer as salve for the wounds of his disappointed and disenchanted contributors was: without us, the race would not have been as close as it was. (That should tell you something right there!)

Those who contributed to and ran these Super PACs will now be engaged in a rancorous battle of recrimination and retribution, trying to determine: What happened? The answer is quite simple and encouraging: The American electorate, as diverse, sometimes seemingly disinterested and ill-informed as we may be, are not nearly as stupid, disconnected and gullible as these moneyed interests wanted to believe. The majority of American voters have once again demonstrated the ability to filter out all the noise – no matter how loud it may be – and more often than not, make the right decision for their future. This silent stream of consciousness has flowed through the entire history of our democracy and may be the fundamental reason for its continued existence.

It may be natural from a perch-on-high to think one is better and smarter than those below and that, by the force of this wealth and power, you can impose your will upon them. But that is a fatal error in judgment and reality. Time after time in the history of our democracy the elite and the “smart money” have determined they know what is best for the rest of the people, and time and again the people have demonstrated they know what is best. The people may not get it right the first time or even the second time, but eventually they do. This is the secret beauty of American democracy.

The more insidious attack on our democracy in the elections of 2012 came in the form of a frontal attack on the most elemental principle of democracy – the right to vote. This assault on the right of all citizens to participate in democracy was motivated more by a political and pragmatic problem, than a philosophical one.

The Republican Party establishment understood two pertinent points:

  • The demographic makeup of Americans is changing rapidly.
  • The demographic makeup of the Republican Party is stagnant.

The simple fact is that the electorate in America is becoming less white and less Christian. The percentage of whites voting in the presidential election declined for the third straight cycle. At the same time the number of those identified as minority, ethnic and young continued a steady increase. It is anticipated that by the middle of this century, white voters will make up less than 50 percent of the total. In addition, the country is becoming more secular. The New York Times reported that 20 percent of voting Americans identified themselves as having no religious affiliation; and that percentage increases to one-third among voters aged 18 – 24. It has been estimated that less than 4 in 10 white Christians voted for President Obama; yet he still won.

This sends an ominous message to the Republican Party that it may no longer be possible to win a national election based on a coalition of white Christians. However, rather than embrace and respond to these changes, it has doubled-down on its dependency on white Christian voters for its relevancy. This implication of potential irrelevancy was not lost on the establishment of the Republican Party and was the reason it favored the more centrist, moderate Romney over the other candidates for the Republican nomination.

The Republican hope for victory was based on two strategies:

1. Nominate Romney who in “normal” times – especially considering the economic and financial situation in the country – would have been a shoo-in to win. Even with a changing electorate the hope was that he could win by holding the base of the Party and, as a moderate, cobble enough votes from those in the center who were disenchanted with Obama.

2. Recognizing there was little hope of attracting support from the rising tide of non-white ethnic and secular voters, the Republican Party made a concerted effort to suppress the voting rights of this block.

Both strategies failed.

To secure the nomination, Romney was forced to become a “severe conservative” and move further to the right of the other fringe candidates. Romney was clearly uncomfortable doing this and that led the traditional Republican base to question his sincerity. His late attempt to “Etch a Sketch” his way back to the middle only muddied his credibility as a leader – for both the center and the right.

The strategy of the Republican Party to restrict voting rights was an even greater disaster. In essence, the Republicans were in a race for the emerging non-white, ethnic voter that they knew they could not win; so their strategy was to hobble the other runners. It was a simple strategy: If you can’t win the votes – suppress them.

Under the cloak of a false boogeyman called “voter fraud,” using new “voter ID” laws and restricted voting periods, Republicans made strategic, concerted efforts – mostly in swing-states – to make it more difficult for the emerging new electorate to vote. The strength and beauty of America democracy cut this scheme off at the knees.

In every instance when called upon, the courts ruled the Republican efforts of voter suppression to be unconstitutional and anti-democratic. The threat to the fundamental right to vote orchestrated by the Republicans alienated, angered and motivated the mass of those targeted voters, even to the point of bringing out many who might not have otherwise voted.

The good news is that democracy prevailed and was the real winner in the election. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), from Grapes of Wrath would be proud:

“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t anybody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.”

And the Moral of the Story …

The irony is that Mitt Romney would have probably been an excellent president. Romney would have – maybe should have – won the election if the Republican Party had been more attuned to the emerging democracy in America. But his burden – one that proved too heavy to carry – was to be been shackled with the yoke of a political party out of step with time, demographics and democracy.

We may not all be satisfied with the election results, but all of us should be encouraged by evidence that in the end, there is more to winning elections than money and that democracy is protected and prevails when people are willing to stand up and fight for their right to participate.

Maybe by the next election the Republicans will have learned their lesson about democracy. It’s the domain of the people. And we’re the people.

Money Talks and Freedom Walks

The greatest threat to American liberties is that, in the defense of these liberties, we allow actions that endanger the very liberties we seek to preserve.

The American government process is paralyzed in stalemate and the root cause can be traced to the evil that flows from free-flowing money in politics. In the New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10) it is written, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (Often expressed as, “The root of all evil is money.”) If Tim were living in these times he might write, “The use of money is the root of all evil power.” And, he would be right. Money – not experience, talent or ideas – is the root of all power in American politics today. Fifty years ago the iconic California Democratic Party chairman Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh became immortalized in political folklore of when he said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” If Mr. Unruh were alive today, he might suggest that, “Money is the crack cocaine of politics.”

It’s an Ill Wind That . . .

If you have been in Iowa recently you would have noted that the normal winter snow has been replaced by a blizzard of acerbic political television commercials. In fact, every four years the money spent on political ads and campaigning becomes Iowa’s second largest cash crop; just behind corn. (When you think about it, they are really both about the same) These ads are paid for by “independent” shadowy groups with patriotic-sounding names, but they are not designed to enlighten the voter on substantive issues. Rather the objective of these ads is a caustic attack on the opponents of the candidate these groups favor; while allowing the candidate to remain “innocently” above the fray. Such groups are the ventriloquists of politics. Vitriol of any scale can emit from these dummy groups and the candidate’s lips never move.

In this country there has always been a Ménage à trois between money, power and politics, but recent court rulings have added incest to the equation. These rulings have allowed seemingly independent, yet politically related parties to promiscuously comingle their efforts to achieve political power at the risk of a deformed democracy.

The most recent and damaging of these rulings was the 2010 landmark decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. In a narrow 5-to-4 ruling, the Citizens United decision wiped out virtually all barriers to the corrupting influence of money in politics by declaring it legal for individuals, corporations and unions to contribute unlimited amounts of funds to finance independent political campaign expenditures. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion.

Recognizing the potential risk inherent in this decision, the Supreme Court sought to hedge the influence of these corporate and union contributions by declaring that they could not contribute directly to the candidate, but only to independent organizations with no direct ties to any candidate. However well-intended this attempt to control the influence of corporate and union money in politics, it achieved the exact opposite result. This ruling has given rise to the “independent” Super PAC that is empowered to act hidden under the cloak of subterfuge, masked intents, the duplicity of non-disclosure and a lack of accountability.

Since these Super PACs are considered “independent” organizations, there is no requirement for them to disclose who or how much has been contributed or how the money is spent. The only requirement is that the candidate who stands to benefit from the Super PAC activity “has no direct contact or influence” over its actions. (Of course it is perfectly legal for their friends or former employees to form and operate such Super PACs!) In effect, political offices became the property of the highest bidders.

Certainly it was not the intent of the Supreme Court to further sully an already corrupted political campaign system. Rather, the Justices acted out of what they felt to be an even greater responsibility and that is the protection of free speech granted under the Constitution. Free speech has always been sanctified as the bedrock of American liberties; and indeed it is.

Free Speech is Laced with Shades of Gray

The Supreme Court was presented with a perplexing paradox that was created when the desire to preserve the liberty of free speech is threatened by the very exercise of free speech. The enigma faced by the Supreme Court was that the greatest danger our country faces in the defense of liberty – especially free speech – is that in defending this way of life we allow actions that endanger this way of life. Unfortunately the Supreme Court was unable to resolve this conundrum and, in fact, exacerbated it.

In its rightful, yet obsessive, desire to avoid staining the concept of free speech, the Supreme Court basically took the position that “money talks” and that using money – in virtually any form or amount – to influence political elections is an expression of protected free speech. That may have been bad enough, but the court went even further when it ruled that this right of “money talks” free speech also applies to corporations and unions. It is a ruling that allowed Mitt Romney to proudly proclaim that, “Corporations are people too;” suggesting that they had the same right to influence elections as do individuals.

The Heart of the Quandary

It is altogether right and proper to be pure and vigilant in the protection of the right of free speech, but what if the result of such vigilance leads to actions that compromise free speech for all but a few? In a world where individuals are limited to contributing $2,800 directly to a political campaign (and most lack the resources to contribute even that much), while corporations can now legally contribute untold millions; just who speaks with the loudest voice? We all know, “When money talks, politicians listen.”

By allowing the virtually unfettered flow of money from special interest groups into political campaigns and other special interest efforts, with no required accountability, disclosure or transparency, all in the technical name of protecting free speech, then the very spirit of free speech itself is endangered. The thorny issue is this:

When it comes to political campaigns and the objectives of special interest groups, how do we preserve and protect the right of free speech for all?

There is no need for a constitutional amendment or even a limit on the amount of money that can be spent by individuals, corporations or unions. What is needed and what is constitutional is for Congress to pass laws requiring full disclosure, transparency and accountability when it comes to corporations, unions and special interest groups that spend their money in political activity; this is especially true for Super PACs.

The Super PAC (and groups like them) should be required to clearly disclose their objective, i.e. to seek the election of a specific candidate. Under current law a Super PAC can run negative attack ads against any candidate with no mention of whom they seek to benefit. Super PACs should be required to list the names of individuals and corporations, along with the amount and date of the contribution. All of those associated with and/or working for a Super PAC should be required to disclose any and all past or present relationships with the candidate the PAC is supporting. And maybe most important, politicians who benefit from the Super PAC activities – even if they did not participate in the strategy or development of the material used – should be clearly identified and announce their knowledge, approval and acceptance of the activity.

Such disclosure requirements for Super PACs would neither prohibit their activity or the amount of money they collect and spend. It would preserve their right of free speech while helping to level the playing field by providing the electorate with the information necessary to make a better informed decision regarding the information presented. This is little enough to ask in an effort to preserve the right of free speech for all.

And the Moral of the Story …

If, in an effort to protect the purity of freedom of speech, the courts are going to give legal protection to the theory that “money talks,” then at least we should know who is using their money to do the talking. Free speech without the requirement of disclosure and the responsibility of accountability is a threat to the free speech rights of everyone.

It is proper to be vigilant in the protection of our liberties, but it is as equally important to be wary of actions taken in the name of preserving liberty that may endanger the very liberties we seek to protect.