Flickr Creative Commons // DonkeyHotey
“Money is not speech! Corporations are not people!” read the signs. Hordes of protesters had descended on the steps of the Supreme Court, some of them donning top hats and bow ties as satirical attire, in their opposition to the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. Protesters lamented what they considered to be the death of democracy. The landmark case had overturned the government’s prohibition on those political expenditures by corporations and unions deemed illegal by McCain – Feingold, giving birth to the superPAC.
At the time, debates around the subject were all style and zero substance. Anybody who attempted to defend the ruling — like yours truly at the bastion of free thought (*wink*) that is the University of Michigan — had to invoke the term “legal fiction” in worthless attempts to convince peers that we were never specifically arguing that corporations are actually people.
Luckily for us, it’s 2012, and the first round of elections influenced by
lots of money superPACs are among us, granting everybody some anecdotal ammunition.
One of the most interesting developments has been the emergence of “sugar daddies” funding the candidacies of floundering third-rate Republicans who likely would have run out of cash by now. Who would have thought that a disgraced 1990s House Speaker or a washed up U.S. senator who lost his seat by 20 points would still be in the race for our nation’s highest office?
While the candidates may not be the crème de la crème, the big bucks of Foster Friess, Peter Thiel and Sheldon Adelson have kept the fire lit behind hard-line sects of the Republican Party all while exposing that asshole Mitt Romney. Be it Rick Santorum’s pre-Roe v. Wade social conservatism, Ron Paul’s libertarianism or Newt Gingrich’s Newt-ness, these are voices of minority groups that are being heard loud and clear from our radios and televisions. I think that’s pretty democratic.
The current rung of politcos may not be our cup of tea, but one can imagine similar sources of money aligning behind different strains of the Democratic Party come 2016: African American advocacy, greens, labor, LGBT, etc.
Also learned in 2012: all the Benjamins in the world don’t win presidential elections. Rick Perry’s millions did little to advance his anti-gay and pro-Christmas crusade. Romney outspent Santorum by wide margins in Michigan and Ohio; that didn’t stop the latter from nibbling on his heels in both contests. Ron Paul has more money on-hand than either Gingrich or Santorum — and has yet to win a state. Over at The Economist, Will Wilkinson quotes Joseph Schumpeter: “The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette.”
By far, however, the most important positive from superPACs has been the creative freedom Citizens United has granted activists.
A story in Mother Jones today profiles millionaire anarchist Leo Linbeck III, chairman of Campaign for Primary Accountability (CFPA), a superPAC. Without the Citizens United ruling, it would have been much more difficult to mobilize a force like CFPA. The group was founded by libertarian Eric O’Keefe with one goal: vote out the bastards.
Led by Linbeck, the group’s aim is to use the power of the purse to do what political parties and state redistricting panels won’t—make congressional races competitive again. CFPA, which has raised $1.8 million to date, is targeting at least 10 Republican and Democratic incumbents in half a dozen states, with plans to increase that number over the next few months. And it’s starting to work. The group has taken credit for the Super Tuesday defeat of Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) and the retirement of another Republican, Dan Burton of Indiana.
“It’s not just a matter of ‘Hey, they’ve been there a long time, let’s get rid of them,’” Linbeck says. “It’s more like they’ve been there a long time and they’re disconnected from the voters in their district, and they would win without some other force coming in. Well, we’re that other force.”
You don’t have to be a billionaire to affect change either. The grassroots invention that was the Ron Paul moneybomb is the candidate’s primary source of cash, raking in millions from thousands of 99 percenters around the country. It’s safe to say he wouldn’t have nearly the name recognition he has today without it. Stephen Colbert has raised $1 million for his superPAC, even if it’s to show the absurdity behind superPACs. Even Occupy Wall Street has founded their own superPAC.
While it’s always possible for a multitude of corporations and unions to unite behind a crypto-fascist, Wilkinson, for one, remains optimistic about the future of superPACs:
As unaffiliated activists get the hang of their new corporate freedoms, I predict we’ll see an efflorescence of creative political speech: documentaries, viral videos, inventively powerful commercials, and plenty more beyond the reach of prediction. The wealthiest among us are always best able to work around onerous regulations. The Citizens Uniteddecision’s deregulation of spending on campaign-season political speech certainly did make it simpler for billionaires to throw money at candidates, but it also makes it much easier for the rest of us to pool our resources and talents in the service of saying what we want to say, the way we want to say it, about the politicians bidding to rule us.
So to my liberal friends who remain in arms about the Citizens United ruling: Quit your bitchin’, get off your butts and take advantage of your freedom to affect political change.