Thirty million dollars. That’s the most recent estimate of the amount of money spent on the August recall elections. To put that into perspective, Wisconsin’s deficit estimate this past spring, which triggered the budget repair bill and waves of protests, was $137 million. The money spent on these special elections would have solved 20 percent of that budget crisis and would have been enough to cover the average salaries of 646 teachers in one year.
Roughly $25 million are not being spent by the candidates themselves but rather by special interest groups organized into political action committees. Last year, a landmark Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for the deluge of money currently saturating Wisconsin local television and radio stations. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, overturning the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act. The ruling solidifies the precedent that corporations and individual citizens share the same rights, and the idea that contributing money is a protected form of speech. This paves the way for corporations and unions to donate unlimited money to outside groups actively campaigning for and against the candidates running.
The ripples of the Citizens United ruling are already shaping the climate of next year’s presidential elections. W Spann LLC, a company formed just last March, donated $1 million to Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting former Massachussetts Gov. Matt Romney’s presidential campaign, before dissolving in July. Only after the charade was revealed was it discovered that the donor behind W Spann LLC was actually Edward Conrad, a former executive at Bain Capital—Romney’s former hedge fund. It appears poor Conrad had run up against the $2,500 contribution limits for individuals.
Restore Our Future could accept the donation under the guise of independence from the official Romney campaign, despite the fact that it is run by three former aides to the candidate who have made it no secret that they serve the sole purpose of electing their former boss. The super PAC raised $12.2 million in the first six months of 2011 and, under the laws of the Citizens United decision, there are no restrictions on how they can spend this money. While one person can only make a $2,500 campaign contribution, corporations face no such boundaries.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the health of American democracy. The electoral process in particular is flooded with unknown sources of wealth. There is little reason to believe that current campaign laws are sufficient to ensure that money being contributed to super PACs is limited to American donors. The millions of dollars contributed to Romney’s super PAC could just have easily come from a Saudi oil prince, funneling the money through a shadow company to purchase the American presidency.
Furthermore, what these organizations do with the money is troubling. Americans for Prosperity, an organization funded by businessmen and Tea Party financiers David and Charles Koch, sent mailings to registered Democrats in Wisconsin leading up to the recall elections. Absentee ballots were included with instructions to send them to a P.O. Box of another conservative PAC. Other mailings provided voting information that listed the election date as two days after the election. Politics has never been a clean good-faith contest, but the unregulated nature of modern elections has led to new lows in campaign strategy.
Voter suppression aside, the Citizens United ruling has taken campaigns out of the hands of politicians and placed them firmly in the hands of political organizations bankrolled by corporations and unions. The forum for discussion has shifted from candidates sharing their views with voters to 30-second television and radio ads lambasting a candidate for some irrelevant indiscretion. In an increasingly complex world, America cannot afford to choose its leaders in this foolish fashion. This was demonstrated first-hand with the manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling, which also happened to be created and perpetuated by the first Congress elected after Citizens United. We now face tumbling stock prices and an unprecedented downgrade to America’s credit.
In an era where people are losing all faith in government—the approval rating of Congress is a record low 14 percent according to the latest CNN poll—there is an urgent need to take back our democracy. The current path of American politics hands power over to corporations and special interests. Representative democracy relies on voters holding politicians responsible for their actions in government. If corporations and unions are hosting the debate for our elections, it’s only natural that politicians respond to their now constitutionally protected wishes.
Corporatist governance is on full display and polls indicate people aren’t happy. The only question remaining is whether we, the people, rise up and do something about it.