Article — From the April 2012 issue

It’s a Rich Man’s World

How billionaire backers pick America

( 3 of 7 )

There is nothing new about money in American politics. It has twisted the people’s will and infuriated the civic-minded for more than two centuries. Efforts to restrict the flow of campaign spending go back as far as 1757, when George Washington was taken to task for ladling out an excess of rum, beer, and hard cider to the voters in his district. Since then, a series of laws—including the Pendleton Act (1883), the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (1910), the Taft–Hartley Act (1947), the Federal Elections Campaign Act (1971, 1974), and the McCain–Feingold Act (2002)—have aimed to disrupt the synergy between cash and electioneering, with mixed success.

But it is different this time, in two ways.

First of all, there is the sheer size of it. Almost every modern election cycle sees a rise in spending over the previous one. This time, however, the increase will be much steeper. Think of the many outrages brought to you over the past decade or so by campaign dollars: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; the millions dumped by friendly billionaires into Americans Coming Together; the adventures of the Bush Pioneers, the Bush Rangers, the Bush Super Rangers. These will fade to insignificance when compared with the 2012 onslaught—the “coming tsunami of slime,” as journalist Joe Hagan calls it.

How big will the tsunami be? No one knows for sure, since today we are operating under different rules than those that prevailed just four years ago. One way of gauging the wall of filth that is headed our way would be to note that the 2010 congressional elections—the first to be conducted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—saw more than a fivefold increase in “independent expenditures” over the previous round of midterms. And according to the Center for Responsive Politics, independent spending to date for the 2012 elections is already 108 percent above 2008 levels. At a minimum, then, we can probably look forward to twice as much slime as the last time around.

We have been heading in this direction for a while, thanks to trends in campaign finance that brought us bundlers and PACs and 527s. Citizens United upped the ante by effectively inviting corporations and unions to spend as much as they liked on “electioneering communications.” What really changed, however, was neither the abolition of spending limits nor even the touching solicitude paid to corporations by equating their speech with that of human beings. No, Citizens United (and the related SpeechNow case) altered the political landscape most profoundly by ushering in the Super PAC.

What distinguishes the Super PAC from previous electoral-finance innovations is the deniability it affords the candidate it supports. By law, candidates themselves still cannot accept more than $2,500 from an individual. A Super PAC—officially designated as an “independent expenditure-only committee”—suffers from no such handicap. It can raise and spend potentially oceanic amounts of cash, as long as it maintains its nominal “independence” from a candidate. These slush funds are open to contributions from ordinary citizens, of course. But they have become the stalking horse par excellence for billionaire backers, who are now freed from the nickel-and-dime constraints of direct contribution—and much of this money, being theoretically separate from the candidates themselves, has naturally been poured into vitriolic TV ads.

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