Say Goodbye to Democracy If SuperPacs Succeed

Uber-Wealthy contributors behind right-wing campaign ads are after more than just victory in November. They’re trying to permanently reshape the political landscape–to change America from a Democracy into little more than a huge  banana republic; with a willing, complicit media.

How else can we possibly explain what is happening before our eyes? We know that politics, controlling the airwaves with unlimited SuperPac funding, is a slow-motion failure of Democracy unfolding before our eyes. A handful of wealthy individuals now have the capacity to radically swing elections. But beyond the influence on individual races and changing the way national campaigns must be run, Super PACs and the messages they are financing may have a striking long-term effect on how we as a society view our government.

Unlimited Funds Means Unlimited Influence

Super PACs and tax-exempt advocacy groups — on track to spend roughly $1 billion on federal races, an unparalleled sum — are poised to expand their influence even further.

Amid the white-hot final weeks of this election, outside groups are already plotting their next targets: the year-end battle over the federal budget, the 2014 congressional races and a possible fight over the next Supreme Court nominee.

Because so much of this cash is hard to track, we don’t know exactly where dollars are going, but those estimates still paint a clear image of a democracy radically remaking itself. David Axelrod summed up the blight nicely (even accounting for the sour grapes that come from being on the wrong side of the ledger) in a recent New Yorker article:

If your party serves the powerful and well-funded interests, and there’s no limit to what you can spend, you have a permanent, structural advantage. We’re averaging fifty-dollar checks in our campaign, and trying to ward off these seven- or even eight-figure checks on the other side. That disparity is pretty striking, and so are the implications. In many ways, we’re back in the Gilded Age. We have robber barons buying the government.

It’s been clear from the beginning that many on the right have been lukewarm about Mitt Romney as a candidate. I would argue that this ambivalence shows up in donors’ spending habits as well: when it comes to the actual campaign apparatus, President Obama is running sizably ahead of Romney in fundraising. This raises an interesting question: legal limits aside, what other reasons do big-ticket donors have to avoid going straight to the party apparatus?

Super PACS give these donors a way to swing elections, but more importantly, they provide a way to control their messaging directly in ways that donating to Romney’s camp would not. Lost in the election-focused discussion of ground game versus ad game is the potential long-term result of the one-sided messaging that is currently blaring from our television sets and computer screens.

“Our goal was to build an enduring institution on the conservative side to counter the outsized power of organized labor on behalf of Democratic causes and candidates,” said Steven Law, president of the super PAC American Crossroads and its nonprofit sister, Crossroads GPS.

Independent groups are now cementing their status as unending fixtures in the political firmament, with resources that rival those of the official parties. That’s particularly true on the political right, which has seen the rapid development of several networks of GOP-allied groups — many of them financed with undisclosed contributions.

Through funding these Super PACs, 30 or so billionaires are running a nation-wide advertising campaign. While the focus is on attacking Obama, this brain trust is playing a real-time long game. The reality of issue advertising is that there are subliminal long-term effects on the audience and their associations with political stances and phrases. That’s how advertising works with Snickers, Samsung, or anything else, and that’s how it is working here. Sure, it helps Mitt Romney in November if “Obama” is associated with “bureaucracy” and “high taxes” and “ tax and spend,” but what about the fact that the ads are also connecting “government” with “bureaucracy,” “tax burden,” and “tax and spend,” independent of the candidate?

The growing clout of pro-GOP groups has spurred a political arms race, with liberals scrambling to expand their own super PACs even as they complain about the influence of big money in politics. Leaders of Democratic-allied groups said they still want to see the system reformed. But without a change in the law, they have no choice but to plan to be even more active in the coming years.

Regardless of whether you favor Democrats or Republicans, the larger concern is with the way we carry out democracy in this country. The root problem here is that a small sect of wealthy people can fundamentally affect our view of government and how it functions. This new front in the war of ideas will not end with a single battle in November; Super PACs are a giant new tool intended to drive a wedge between the people and their government even more effectively than the Reagan and Gingrich’s “welfare queen” rhetoric of the past. Their messaging makes the case that government is something foreign, alien, and other. On the other side, there are no ads making the case for Medicare, public education, or government as a vehicle for social change.

Beyond Paranoia– Fundamental Change in Governance

Though outside organizations such as unions have long exerted influence in national politics, their role dramatically increased after a series of court rulings in 2010 led to the creation of super PACs. Those groups can pool unlimited amounts from donors, as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates or parties. At the same time, tax-exempt nonprofits stepped up their political activities, emboldened by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations to engage in campaigns directly and make unlimited political expenditures.

Outside groups are emerging as “shadow political parties,” said Republican election law attorney Michael Toner. Some are even taking up the kind of get-out-the-vote organizing that has traditionally been the domain of the official party organizations.

One could make the argument that Super PAC supporters see attacking the roots of government as a fortunate side benefit to helping the Romney campaign, but that seems naïve. And considering the past 30 years of intentional Frank Luntz-style messaging from the right, I find it unfeasible to believe that this onslaught is merely a theoretical case for greater “freedom.” Rather, it is a premeditated attempt to further erode Americans’ sense of government as a positive entity and, with that, the chance for “government” to be a publicly held positive in our society. While it is true that our relationship with government is a multifaceted and developing one, it must not be defined by such a black-and-white campaign against government itself in all forms.
Harvey Gold

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