Election 2016

6 More Nails In Democracy’s Coffin: Depressing Trends in Political Spending

Our elections system continues to get worse.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Gts

American democracy—meaning our system of campaigns, lobbying and governing—has been drowning in dollars for decades. But a half-dozen recent trends suggest that 2014 is not just on the way to becoming another record-breaking election, where ever-greater sums are spent by elites to sway voters.

What sets 2014 apart is the staggering amount of outside money that is being spent for efforts that eclipse traditional candidate-run campaigns. This is a direct consequence of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that view all political messaging as free speech, and do not see how the wealthy monopolize the microphone, drown out debate and suppress dissent.

Meanwhile, on the reform side—meaning those experts who say they know what has to be done to fix our system—really bizarre things are starting to happen.

These are not the activists who keep telling the public that Congress is getting closer and closer to sending the states a democracy-saving constitutional amendment, a trendy recent claim. Sorry, but the votes in Congress are nowhere close to doing that. What’s more disturbing are the latest moves from longtime champions of public financing, who are using a new strategy to elect reformers to Congress. They raised $12 million in small and big donations, including from many progressives, to elect five U.S. House members committed to reform. This week, they announced their first candidates, to receive $2 million each in advertising support—from the Mayday super PAC.

One is New Hampshire Republican Jim Rubens, whose isn’t even running for the House. His Senate campaign website’s issue page reads like a Libertarian-meets-Tea Party manifesto. He’s anti-Obamacare, pro-gun, anti-spending, and pro-border security. That's in synch with the Supreme Court's justices who keep gutting congressional authority and not just on money in politics. What was his campaign reform idea that netted him $2 million? Apparently, he supports government-issued vouchers for people to use to donate to campaigns. This is a staggering example of why a single-issue politics is perilous, or at best, naïve. 

“As long as campaign finance is seen as a liberals-only issue, I don’t think we’ll be able to bring in the resources that we need to win,” Nick Penniman, the executive director of Fund For The Republic, told The New York Times about the support for Rubens and for Staci Appel, an Iowa Democrat seeking an open House seat. “If you’re a Republican or an independent in this country and you think that money plays too much of a role in politics, you really have no home.”

Well, with thinking like that, representative democracy may not have a home, if it isn’t homeless already. Yet the Mayday super PAC is just one of many throwing their weight around this year. Let’s look at the latest half-dozen money-in-politics trends.

1. Outside spending is through the roof. Federal midterm elections are usually hum-drum affairs. There are no national candidates, usually no national themes. Typically, a third of the people who voted in the last presidential elections skip out. That’s 40 million or so fewer voters. But so far in 2014, the money spent on television ads is 70 percent higher than it was in the last federal midterm, in 2010, the Times reported on Monday.

Most of this money isn’t being spent by candidate-run campaigns, but by outside groups such as the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC, and the pro-corporate and newly anti-Tea Party U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In states with competitive Senate races such as Colorado, four times as much money has already been spent on TV ads, compared to 2010.

2. Most of the ads are nasty.The outbreak of all this speech, which is how the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling put it, is not about singing the praises of America’s would-be public servants. It’s harsh attacks, for the most part, and while many candidates might complain that they have lost control of their positive messaging, don’t believe it. As the Times noted, it’s “easier for outside groups and ‘super PACs’ to run attack ads, leaving the positive messages up to the candidates, and the result is an increasingly negative sheen to the general political discourse.” If you live in Alaska, Colorado, North Carolina, Kentucky or states with tight races, there’s no escape.

3. Special interests have more power than ever.The result of all this outside money is that candidates, if successful, are going to be more beholden than ever to their sponsors—no matter if these outside groups identify their donors or not. There’s simply no way that people who spend millions of dollars will not show up after Election Day and say, “Hi. Remember that ad?” When you step back and think about it, investing in political races is cheap for large corporations and wealthy individuals, compared to the possible returns on that investment if government then supports policies benefitting your bottom line.

“In the Senate races alone, the number of poltical television spots from outside groups is nearly six times as much as it was in the same point in the 2010 cycle,” the Times said. “In fact, more political ads from outside groups have already aired during the relatively slow summer period of the 2014 Senate contests—roughly 150,000 spots through mid-July—than ran through the entire 2010 Senate elections.”

4. Super PACs will soon be running the whole show. Who needs candidate campaigns anymore, the Washington Post asked on Tuesday, looking at some highly contested 2014 races—such as Tea Partier Chris McDaniel’s failed U.S. Senate bid in Mississippi. Three-fourths of the campaign spending for McDaniel didn’t flow through his campaign operation, but it paid for the things traditional campaigns do: TV and radio ads, Facebook ads, direct mail, and phone banks.

“Until recently, candidates’ campaigns controlled that activity, in the way that employees work for a CEO,” the Post’s Philip Bump wrote. “If you’re a candidate, what is the absolute minimum that you need in order to run for office, the thing that only you can provide? The answer is this, the candidate. And in a world where that candidate is restricted in fundraising and spending but those PACs aren’t, why not let the PACs handle the TV ads and radio and the online marketing and the field and all of that?”

In McDaniel’s case, the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign cash, found that 83 percent of all the money spent on his behalf came from outside groups. Of course, they were every shade of Tea Partiers, and surely he was comfortable with that. The Center reported that two other federal candidates had even more outside spenders. Going further, the wealthy parents of some U.S. House candidates are also setting up Super PACs, and then their candidate-kids are telling the press that they didn't know that.

5. Reformers’ strategy #1: Pray for an amendment. The democracy reform movement has split into two very different camps. The response by those who want to roll back years of bad Supreme Court decisions that have deregulated campaigns is to adopt an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving that power back to Congress.

To date, 150 reform groups have pushed for an amendment. Hundreds of government jurisdictions, 16 state legislatures, 150 U.S. House members, and 48 senators back an amendment. The Democratic Party and many public interest groups are raising a lot of money by citing the amendment. But the biggest problem is not that there’s no agreement on wording in the more than a dozen amendment resolutions in Congress. It is that two-thirds of both chambers are needed to send an amendment to the states.

That’s 100 more representatives and 18 more senators than currently support it. Then three-fourths of the states have to ratify it before it can take effect. It is the longest of long shots.

6. Reformers’ strategy #2: Embrace the irony.” That’s the unofficial slogan of the Mayday PAC, led by Harvard University’s Larry Lessig, and some like-minded groups composed of long-time public financing advocates, some of which have rebranded themselves (Public Campaign Action Fund is now Every Voice). They recently raised $12 million, with the goal of electing five reform-minded House members this year, to show that democracy reform can be an issue for voters. Half of the money came from 50,000-plus people in small donations averaging about $100. The rest came from technology entrepreneurs writing million-dollar checks.

The Mayday PAC is a bit of a media darling. On Tuesday, it was feartured in a front-page Times article announcing its first two democracy reform recipients—including right-wing New Hampshire Senate candidate Jim Rubens who faces former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown in a primary. The article also featured comments by Lessig’s co-director at Mayday PAC, Republican political consultant Mark McKinnon, who said some “conservatives are realizing that we don’t have a free public policy market, and the reason for that is directly tied to money” driving political campaigns and lobbying.

So, what’s their remedy? Initially, it was to spend $12 million on five House candidates committed to sponsoring democracy reform legislation. The Times noted that in 2012, Jonathan Soros, who had a super PAC called Friends of Democracy, spent $2.8 million backing nine reform-minded candidates. “While eight of them won, the victories did not make a major splash, in part because of the sheer volume of money spent by other outside groups and the public’s focus on the 2012 presidential race,” the Times said.

Fast-forward to 2014’s super PAC-saturated races and we see that the first two candidates selected by Mayday PAC are in New Hampshire and Iowa. These states are bombarded with political ads, due to their 24-7 role in presidential elections.

One does not have to go very far to find skepticism about unfurling a reform-oriented media strategy in these two states. A day before, Mayday PAC co-founder McKinnon told another Times reporter what he thought about the efficacy of super PAC spending. “The irony is that the more political ads air on TV, the more voters tune them out,” he said. “It just becomes a white noise. The return on investment is absurd.”

That’s quite an admission coming from the co-founder of the super PAC dedicated to saving American democracy from drowning in dollars. It, along with the snails-pace amendment effort, suggest there’s little that is out there that might revive American democracy. One wonders if it’s time to relabel our form of government.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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