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When Money Talks, Democracy is Silenced

For most New Yorkers, President Obama's trip to the city last week was a quiet affair. Those in Midtown Manhattan may have noticed the throngs of added police scattered about on street corners or glimpsed the presidential motorcade cruising up Fifth Avenue in a swift, ordinate whiz, but for the most part he arrived in a flash and was gone with the wind—but not without first having gathered a tidy sum of generous campaign contributions.

The first stop on his trip was to the upper-east side home of hedge fund manager Marc Lasry, where members of New York's liberal elite shelled out $40,000 a pop to hear the president explain why he deserves four more years. Then it was on to the Waldorf-Astoria, where he joined 500 supporters who, with a $2,500 donation, received a complimentary serenade from singer Jon Bon Jovi. The president ended his tour at the New Amsterdam Theater where a star-studded crowd joined hundreds of others for the event "Broadway for Barack."

Former President Clinton accompanied the president at each event, and together they managed to raise over $3 million for the Obama campaign, bringing its total up to an impressive $450 million. Combine that with the millions raised so far by Romney and the Republican National Committee, and you're looking at a ballpark total akin to the GDPs of several small nations combined.

These numbers are huge, but they haven't always been. The enormous level of wealth being poured into our elections in recent years is a brand new phenomenon. In the 1996 presidential election, for example, Clinton and Dole raised a relatively modest $42.5 million and $44.9 million, respectively. The numbers have climbed with each election since, and in 2008, Obama surpassed expectation when he raised nearly $750 million, an amount that exceeds what all of the candidates combined collected in the previous race for the White House.

Three quarters of a billion dollars is a lot of money to spend to get one man hired, but in reality it's begun to cost a lot more. In 2010, the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission changed the rules of the game, making it possible for corporations and unions to use unlimited amounts of money, during all periods of the campaign, to influence voters however they like.

The basis of the case was in the FEC's refusal to allow Citizens United, a conservative non-profit corporation, to air their film Hilary: The Movie and to advertise for the film during television broadcasts. The film itself was critical of then-presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton, and as such, was acknowledged by the FEC as being a form of corporate electioneering in apparent violation of the now-overturned 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

Throughout the trial that ensued, what started out as a case involving the role of documentary films in election campaigns had suddenly, and artfully, shifted into a case about free speech. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that as a corporation, Citizens United's right to express itself freely should not be limited, and that any limitation would be a violation of the First Amendment. Corporations are people too, after all: giant, powerful, multi-headed people, who have the right to spend their money in any way that they see fit. Now, six months away from Election Day, we're seeing the realities of how the Court's decision is being played out. In light of the massive amount of corporate money being channeled into the presidential race, the Justices have agreed to reassess the case.

Does any of this actually matter? Would allowing large corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertising actually hinder the integrity of the democratic process, or is all of this talk about campaign finance simply baseless, anti-corporate fear mongering? Just ask Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin who, as one of the country's least popular Governors, recently claimed victory in the Wisconsin recall election. How did he do it? 66% of the $31 million dollars raised came from outside donors, including oil-rich billionaires, members of the Koch brothers' million-dollar donor club, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Walker's opponent, Tom Barrett, raised just $3.6 million, only a quarter of which was raised outside the state. "The gush of cash going to Walker overwhelmed Barrett's boots-on-the-ground effort," wrote David Horsey for the LA Times, "and provided more proof, if any more were needed, that the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling has dramatically altered the balance of power in American politics."

The trend is pervasive. Major corporate donors have become a force in this country, and they're having huge a impact on the way our policies are made. Take, for example, our congressional committee system, where campaign donations are integral in deciding who receives key slots in the lawmaking process. As Marian Currinder pointed out in her book Money in the House, during the 2008 cycle the Democratic congressional campaign committee required members to raise over $200,000 for the party, and the members who raised the most were granted highly coveted seats on powerful congressional committees. These committees cover every issue from banking standards and tax-writing to environmental law. They are the arbiters of policy in this country. Last year, the Sunlight Foundation reported that members of the "supercommittee" for deficit reduction accepted $83,000 in campaign contributions in the 20 days immediately following their appointment. Contributors included defense giant Lockheed Martin, oil company Chevron, and bank Goldman Sachs. News of the donations made headlines just one month before the supercommittee itself collapsed after a bipartisan failure to come to an agreement.

We've seen, over the last four years, the extent to which most corporations respect the livelihoods of the American people. The economy is in the gutter, unemployment rates remain stagnant and 4 million families have already been thrown out of their homes—and corporate America is back on top and ready to roll. How can we expect our politicians to focus on the interests of the American people while they accept large sums of money from corporations whose sole objective is to profit at the expense of the American people?

The reality is that money matters. If it didn't, our politicians wouldn't need to skip around on jets sucking it up by the barrel anywhere that they can. Instead, they might be sitting quietly at their desks asking themselves how the hell they actually intend to get us out of this mess. Allowing corporations to bankroll candidates makes it extremely difficult for candidates who refuse corporate support to get their messages across. The Green Party, for example, or any other party that wishes to compete, will be driven to obscurity, their messages having been drowned out by multi-million dollar corporate-backed attack ads. Ordinary citizens who have fresh ideas and valid concerns—and who may very well represent substantial populations of Americans—simply cannot compete with the virtually limitless resources of major corporations.

In the wake of the Citizens United verdict, an ABC News poll showed that 80% of Americans opposed the decision. And in a 2012 Center for American Progress poll, 83% of Americans agreed that corporations should not be given the same rights as people. While the majority of America remains concerned, the corporations continue to spread villainous accusations of class warfare, labeling us socialists, resentful of their riches and success. To which many of us are compelled to respond, "We don't mind you being rich, we mind you buying our government."

So when Obama comes to town to visit his liberal democratic base, some may get really pumped up and proud to support the campaign of hope, but many of us acknowledge that such trips only highlight the painful reality that our voices are falling on deaf ears, and that to firmly support him is in itself the essence of hopelessness.   

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