From The Baltimore Sun, October 13, 2010
Stop the Anonymous Hit Men: Make Shadowy Campaign Money the Issue
I’ve been going door-to-door canvassing, and it’s not that bad—really. It’s actually kind of fun. But only because I’ve found a way to break through people’s cynicism.
No wonder people are cynical. Crashing from the sky-high hopes of two years ago, people are worried about jobs, the economy and their own uncertain futures, about the wars we’re bogged down in and the threats to our planet. They don’t like where America is headed, don’t like most politicians or candidates, and are often uncertain whether their vote even matters. But when I talked about the takeover of our politics by destructive corporate interests, culminating in the barrage of anonymous attack ads unleashed by the Supreme Court’s ghastly Citizens United decision, they quickly became willing to listen.
So I’m delighted the Democrats are finally hitting back at the US Chamber of Commerce and other Republican front groups for dumping millions of dollars of untraceable corporate contributions into the election, with the total likely to exceed $300 million. But we also need to speak out on this, as ordinary citizens. We need to make the buying of our democracy the salient issue of the coming election and beyond, because it affects everything else that we need to change.
So how do we do this in the few remaining weeks before the elections? We need to talk about the ads of all the front groups from the Chamber of Commerce to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. But we also need to highlight the Republican justices who overruled a century of precedent to enact Citizens United. And talk about how Republican Senators have stood in unison to prevent requiring corporate interests to at least put their names on their ads.
From what I can tell, most Americans are most vaguely aware of the DISCLOSE Act, the transparency legislation that a Republican filibuster blocked by a single vote. When they do find out, they’re outraged, because anonymous attack ads are an affront to even the barest standards of fairness, whatever one’s political beliefs. In fact, Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have long argued that so long as people knew who was paying for campaign ads, there was no need to regulate them through campaign finance reform or counterbalance them with public financing. “We ought to have full disclosure,” said Boehner in 2007, “full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Yet since Citizens United opened the floodgates for monied interests to drown out the rest of our voices, Republican leaders and their key allies have done everything they can to foster anonymous and untraceable attacks from the shadows.
Frustrated as voters are with the state of America, including with the Democrats’ own frequent capitulation to corporate interests, most still don’t want our government to become the wholly owned property of BP, EXXON, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Verizon, and all the other corporations (including foreign ones) who can now buy our elections without people even knowing they’re involved. Obama, the Democrats, and progressive organizations therefore need to keep talking about the issue repeatedly and forcefully, through their speeches, debate points, and ads, and through the talking points they circulate for campaign volunteers. As ordinary citizens we have to do our part as well--knocking on doors, making phone calls and talking to friends, neighbors and coworkers who may be discontented with their current representatives, but would draw the line at furthering the total capture of our democracy by the most powerful economic interests on the planet. Or at least they would if we gave them the chance to have a conversation. But we can’t just leave the issue up to the candidates.
We also need to tackle the issue beyond November. Public financing of campaigns would help immensely, using the model of $5 contributions and public matching funds that’s worked wonderfully in Maine, Vermont and even Arizona. This model remains legal even under the new Supreme Court rules, and would reduce the corporate influence on both parties, because while the Republicans are the current recipients of massive business dollars, the Democrats have also been influenced and their policies corrupted by them--as when Senators like Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln took massive dollars from health care interests, and then used the threat of joining a Republican filibuster to vastly water down the original House bill. Public financing can also complement a push to reverse Citizens United through Congressional legislation, grassroots organizing, and perhaps a constitutional amendment. But for now, we need to focus on whether or not those running to represent us at least recognize our right to know who is trying to buy our votes. The political allegiances are clear from the DISCLOSE Act. If we work well enough at explaining why the money matters, it could tip race after close race, and help us begin to rein in the power of unaccountable greed.
Paul Loeb is the founder of the national nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project. His civic engagement books, like Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, have over three hundred thousand copies in print. A version of this article also ran in The Huffington Post.
This article appeared in The Baltimore Sun, October 13, 2010