As the congressional campaign season kicks off, and we all brace for an onslaught of ads, attention must be paid to the damage big money does to our democracy, and to why it is allowed to happen.
Fortunately, solutions are available, if we push for them.
First, why do we have the problem? The short answer is this: the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reasons that speaking to the public about candidates costs money, therefore limiting the money restricts political speech. Since political speech deserves the highest First Amendment protection, money spent on political speech does, too. Moreover, says the court, allowing unlimited speech results in a better informed electorate.
We all want a more broadly and deeply informed electorate. If unlimited campaign money achieved that education we would be heading into the best informed election yet. But we’re not, because the court’s logic rests on two unstated assumptions that are false. The court is assuming, first, that political ads are informative and, second, that more money will give access to more views.
Contrary to the court’s assumption, political ads aim to manipulate our emotions, not educate us. Even ads that present “facts” tell out-of-context half-truths. One will say the candidate cut taxes and the next will say the same candidate raised taxes. In TV ad timeframes it is impossible to give enough context for voters to understand the choice reflected in taxation decisions. But only by understanding the trade-off in the underlying decision can a voter fairly judge the choice.
Second, the unlimited money leads to fewer voices being heard, not more. That’s because the volume of the well-financed voices is so loud everyone else is drowned out. Indeed, it took just 32 billionaires and corporations, giving an average of $9.9 million apiece to Super PACs, to match every single dollar that small donors gave to the Romney and Obama campaigns combined. That statistic, and many other chilling ones, can be found in Billion Dollar Democracy, a report by Demos and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Combined, the top 0.1 percent of donors contributed $1.67 billion of the more than $6 billion spent in 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, in the group’s “The Political 1% of the 1% in 2012,” a piece that can be found at sunlightfoundation.com.
The court has not yet eliminated all campaign finance rules because it recognizes that corruption (or even the appearance of corruption) is bad. For that reason, the court has so far accepted limits capping how much any one person can contribute to a candidate or a political committee and limits capping a person’s total contribution to any combination of candidates or committees. Those “aggregate” limits, however, are the issue in a current case, McCutcheon v. the FEC. If the court rules as expected, one or both aggregate limits will disappear when the court issues its opinion.
Corruption should be a very real concern as the court considers McCutcheon. There’s a well-documented connection between the policies that are enacted and the policies being advocated by the “donor class,” even if the policies hurt most people. The tax code is littered with examples; one has hedge fund managers paying a 20 percent tax on their gigantic incomes instead of the 33 percent or more they would pay if the tax code defined their income as wages instead of “carried interest.” That carried interest loophole makes your tax bill higher.
Beyond the devastating policy impact, big money has a big role in government dysfunction because big money is often very partisan. According to the Sunlight Foundation report, about half of the biggest 2012 donors gave 90 percent or more of their money to Republican candidates and about a third gave 90 percent or more to Democratic candidates.
The Republican partisanship of the big donors was particularly intense, because conservative Republicans depended more on the contributions of the 0.1 percent than did moderate Republicans. No similar correlation existed between big money and liberal versus moderate Democrats.
How can we get the money out? The Supreme Court’s reasoning leaves two basic choices: amend the constitution to enable regulation of campaign finance and/or create a parallel system of publicly financed campaigns.
To date, 16 states have called for a constitutional amendment, including deep-red Montana and deep-blue Massachusetts. New York hasn’t, yet. Still, 17 New York cities and counties have demanded one, though not Suffolk County or any East End town. A handful of states, including Connecticut, have adopted public financing of campaigns. Connecticut’s system finances candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state comptroller, secretary of state, state treasurer, state senator and state representative. New York is currently considering adopting its own version as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget.
To help raise awareness of our campaign finance crisis, the Southold Democrats are participating in a national action on whatever day the McCutcheon decision is handed down by the Supreme Court. If you’d like to join us in taking a stand, check out our Facebook page for details.
Abigail Caplovitz Field is an attorney and freelance journalist who lives with her family in Cutchogue. She is a member of the Southold Democratic Committee.