Beware the apparently wholesome name. The Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission from earlier this year, more commonly referred to as “Citizens United,” was another free market milestone toward creating the illusion that a corporation is a living, breathing and naturalized constituent. Whether or not the ruling – which was quantitatively conservative – was a product of political advocacy or clandestine forces is another matter.
Let us assume that the court’s majority opinion was indeed professional, objective and heartfelt. The problem is that “black and white” ideology does not burden itself with external validity. Any potential inequity is rationalized as if it were a force of nature and not the creation of those who profess its omnipotence. Survival of the fittest is whispered in dark corridors and “might equals right” is converted to dollars and cents.
Many of us don’t realize it, but the majority of political ads this election season are not produced or paid for by the advocated candidates’ campaigns. Those days are gone. Well-intentioned legislators put limits on individual campaign funding over the past decades, culminating with the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act of 2002.
Traditionally, corporations and nonprofit organizations were not allowed to contribute to or produce “electioneering communications.” The Citizens United ruling overturned this safeguard, and the floodgates have opened. Innocent, populist named nonprofit organizations have spread like cancer over the last year into giant conduits of election capital.
While most of the funding has been in support of conservative or established candidates, we must look beyond partisanship. This influence grab is a product of motivations inherently human and universal. The mechanism is not conscious if the user is red or blue. In the end, we have to ask ourselves, “Do we want elections to come down to which candidate will pander to the larger war chest?”
Well-intentioned people will argue money does not decide elections and the people can see through it. Unfortunately, their idealism does not translate to reality. An average House campaign will run in the millions of dollars.
A frightening statistic is that only 1 percent of challengers and 5 percent of open seat House candidates spending less than $700,000 were victorious between 1992 and 2006, according to the Americans for Campaign Reform. The post-Citizens United environment might double that threshold.
If I am a House candidate and I need to raise $2.5 million to be taken seriously in an election there are two options. First, I can attempt to raise an average of $250 from 10,000 of my constituents – try doing that as an unknown – or I can pander to one or two large nonprofit war chests by advocating to their marginal ideological or opportunistic dogma.
One-stop shopping has done wonders for Walmart, wait until you see what it does to elected officials.
Lastly, if someone is a wealthy citizen who wants to substantially influence an election, he/she is also faced with two options. They can give the maximum $2,400 to a candidate’s campaign, cross their fingers and hope for the best.
Or he/she can give tax free millions to a friendly electioneering vehicle that will barrage endless negative attack ads against their candidate’s opponent. You don’t need to call your math professor to figure out the more effective technique in this scenario.
Sadly, the vast majority of the electorate can’t compete with the large resources of transnational corporations, local elites or opportunistic billionaires. Their voice is lost in the election process completely and that is the real free speech issue at stake.
Elections must become more than a multimillion dollar dog and pony show. Access and influence are not forces of nature and must be bridled and broken until there is an acceptable, universal consensus mechanism. If not, any shred of representative government will vanish under a dark cloud of smiles and handshakes.