What Does It Buy?

When the 2010 midterm election is looked back on by politicians and historians, it will be remembered for three stories: the impact of a bad economy, the rise of the Tea Party and the invisible undertow of anonymous special-interest money drowning many Democrats. Democracy, too.

Until recently, the most repeated narrative was that slow growth and high unemployment were sinking the party in power. But other numbers are now showing a new fault line and trend line in 2010 that will shape 2012 and beyond. Outside corporate spending will exceed spending by candidates themselves in many competitive districts. Although contributions to Republican and Democratic candidates and party organizations will be roughly equal–and fully disclosed in Federal Election Commission reports–this new flood of money is weighted 8 to 1 for the G.O.P. and largely hidden behind blandly named Web sites. In 2006, one-fifth of all noncandidate spending came from such groups (party affiliates the rest). This year, it’s three-fifths.

What’s happened is a toxic mix–the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision and election commission rulings have for the first time allowed spending out of corporate treasuries and ads that can expressly urge the defeat of a candidate. Then Karl Rove and others tapped into business hatred of Obama. The result is a $200 million-plus tidal wave.

Smart conservative commentators are saying dumb things to defend private money that’s intended to purchase public office. David Brooks says it’s only one-tenth of all money spent, while what matters is a few million dollars in targeted districts or states. And George Will’s repeated argument that we spend more on yogurt than elections is unserious and demonstrates only that he’s never spent half his time in a room raising money to buy ads to win office.

As for the complaint that Democrats haven’t “proven” that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is using foreign funds, the Chamber itself admits that foreign firms pay membership fees that end up financing outside ads; if the Chamber has contrary evidence, let it disclose it. As is said of witnesses given immunity who won’t testify, the keys to the jail are in their pocket.

After the November elections, a political law of physics may emerge–for every action, there’s a reaction. If the public is outraged enough, there are three possible responses. First, Congress could enact public financing of federal elections, as we have in New York City municipal elections, which is hard when all Republicans vote no. Second, we need to elect Democratic presidents in 2012 and beyond so that whenever a conservative activist leaves the Supreme Court over the next decade, he’s replaced by someone who understands that corporate money is not the speech that the founders were thinking about. 

Last, if this Court says it’s permissible for big business to purchase democracy, then the Constitution provides the remedy of a constitutional amendment. Most  recoil at the possibility of an amendment because of the difficulty of getting two-thirds of the Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures to go along. But since some 70 percent of the public in polls oppose Citizens United–and since a “Stop Corporate Corruption Amendment” would also serve a useful organizing purpose to spur the base to turn out in 2012–such a national effort would be both conceivable and strategic. 

As for the argument that ultimately people don’t care about money in politics, the right answer is, they should and will. We’re at a tipping point in our democracy  when the amount spent on the 2010 midterms is double what was spent in 2006; when a record $3.9 million was spent by outside interests in one Senate race (Colorado)–and on one day (Oct. 19); and when this year six G.O.P. nominees wouldn’t be there but for their personal wealth: Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon, Rick Scott, Ron Johnson and John Raese. The combination of Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United is about to make it nearly impossible for non-billionaires and non-businessmen to run and serve. Where’s a pro-democracy Tea Party to fight the evil that money-shouts? 

editorial@observer.com