Money overwhelms politics

I know. You’re worried.

The election is Tuesday, which means that you may have just a day or two left to savor all that political advertising on TV, all those attack ads, all those commercials from unknown, out-of-state organizations telling Georgians how we ought to vote. After Tuesday it will all be over, and you’re worried that you’ll miss it.

There’s still hope, though. If the governor’s race goes into a runoff, you’ll be able to bask in attack ads from now until December. If the Senate race goes into a runoff, you’ll be golden into January. And if the undecided race in Georgia determines control of the Senate, as seems quite plausible? Turning on your TV will be like turning on a firehose of invective, bile and exaggeration. You can’t wait, right?

In the meantime, have you ever wondered who’s financing that advertising barrage? The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political fundraising trends, this week released its report on the 2014 midterms, and the picture that it draws is depressing.

Spending by outside groups — those supposedly unconnected to candidates or parties — is already up 66 percent over the 2010 midterms, with almost a week left in the race. On the other hand, money raised and spent by candidates themselves is down; for example, candidates for Senate spent $779.9 million in the 2010 midterms, falling to $636.2 million so far in 2014.

In addition, the amount of money given by billionaires is up sharply, while the number of individuals giving has fallen significantly. Those contributing $200 or more have fallen from 817,464 in 2010 to 666,773 so far this year. Wall Street is by far the most dominant giver, investing the lion’s share of its money in conservative causes and conservative politicians.

And that was the money that could be be traced; much of it could not.

Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at CRP, notes that the data show “a further compression of the process”:

“More and more of the relevant participation is happening among fewer and fewer actors, both people and organizations. In a world where vibrant democracies are a function of real participation by as many people as possible, the system we have now seems to be encouraging the opposite, where more and more impact comes from fewer and fewer players.”

This Wild West era of unregulated, often unreported campaign financing began with the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010. In his written opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy reassured his fellow Americans that money is speech, and that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.”

Kennedy may know the law, but as subsequent events have proved, he knows nothing about politics. Giving a relative handful of people the power to overwhelm the voices of hundreds of millions of their fellow citizens is inherently corrupting, and inherently destructive of public confidence in democratic self-government.

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