Super Tuesday has passed, and those in primary states who own televisions have been unable to hide from the flood of political advertising. We’ve all had discussions about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in the two years since the Supreme Court decision. Some people think that the right of corporations to buy political ads on television must remain unhindered by any regulation. Others think that Citizens United was not about free speech but about buying elections.
Elizabeth Drew asks a simple question: Can we have a democratic election? Her article in the Feb. 23 issue of The New York Review of Books examines the degree to which the political process is swaying with the influx of Super PAC money. Drew starts by going back to the 2010 election. Republicans swept into Congress on a wave of antipathy towards incumbents and fervor from the Tea Party. But a key point, Drew writes, is that Republicans did well nationally, but the real sea-change happened at the state level. Republicans won control of the governor’s office and the legislatures in 12 states. 10 states were already under total Republican control.
What we’ve seen in those states — states like Wisconsin — is an influx of legislation targeting the 2012 election. 10 states now have voter ID laws on the books. Drew notes that here in Wisconsin as the state was passing these new restrictions for a state-issued ID, they were closing down branch offices of the DOT (Dept. of Transportation) where we get our driver’s licenses and IDs thereby making it more difficult to get an ID. Students, poor people, and the elderly are the most affected by these new restrictions. In total, 20 laws have passed in various states since the 2010 election limiting access to the polls.
But the real challenge to holding a democratic election is money. McCain-Feingold in 2002 limited the amounts of soft money allowed. Soft money was surging since the 1974 campaign finance reform act that rendered the Federal Election Commission a complicit accomplice. Citizens United removed the remaining traces of McCain-Feingold.
People are outraged. Some groups and individuals suggest a constitutional amendment to clarify the First Amendment protections to speech. Amendments are difficult to pass, and may not do much to prevent money from coming in from other routes. But it will take a lot of political will to undue the damage.
A few rich benefactors, thanks to Citizens United, are keeping the candidacies of Gingrich and Santorum alive. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife have given over $10 million to Gingrich’s Super PAC. It is interesting to see this money being used to attack other Republicans such as in the half-hour video slamming Romney called “King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town.” Santorum likewise wouldn’t have a campaign lest for Foster “Bayer aspirin” Freiss who has also given over $100,000 in support of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for the coming recall election. Scott Walker has been moaning about outsiders since the protests in Wisconsin began in Feb. 2011, but he has had no reservations about traveling out-of-state to drum up funds from the conservative money tree.
This lack of reservation about the 2012 election — reservation about money either through law or social norms — will be the hallmark of this year. What then of the future? Will there be a future after 2012? The atom bomb fell on electoral politics with Citizens United, and our eyes and ears are scorched by attacks ads coming from every direction. It is up to us to make a future worth having. The solutions won’t be easy, but letting billionaire businessmen put politicians in their pockets is wholly corrupt.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.