Smith: America the Oligarchy

by Andres Smith | 10/28/14 3:34pm

There are a few things in which a stressed out college student can take pleasure: cancelled 10 a.m. classes, vending machine Reese’s and most importantly, melting into your bed to watch movie trailers on YouTube. Unfortunately, lately I have found my cinematic pursuits delayed for 30 miserable seconds as a question I never asked is answered for me: just how often did Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., vote with President Obama? “House of Cards” should be the only political intrigue included in my Internet downtime, but the prevalence of YouTube attack ads shows just how absurd the entire system of campaign finance has become. With midterm elections looming, it has become harder than ever to escape the volley of attack ads that fly back and forth between congressional candidates. This is symptomatic of a much larger problem (not that these ads delaying my watching of the “Avengers 2” trailer isn’t a big deal). The real issue is the amount of money that has permeated our electoral system and the undue influence individuals with money have over electoral politics. Right before our eyes, the electoral system has become an oligarchy run by wealthy individuals and political action committees.

At the end of every attack ad, you’ll notice that it doesn’t say it was paid for by the attacked candidate’s opponent or the opposing party. Rather, it was paid for by an organization with a generic name like “Americans for a Better Tomorrow Today” or “Citizens Concerned For America” These organizations — political action committees, or PACs — exemplify everything wrong with U.S. electoral politics. PACs are formed to raise money for political causes, and they do it well: in the 2008 election, the top nine PACs spent nearly $30 million. I doubt that associations like “The American Bankers Association” have the best interests of the American people at heart. In many situations, PACs allow for almost unlimited money to be donated to political causes, as long as the donations are not linked to one candidate. So, in 2012, a PAC could have spent $500,000 attacking Obama — so long as it never mentioned Mitt Romney. PACs must report their donors, providing at least some insight as to who influences elections’ outcomes. PACs also limit how much an individual donor can contribute. However, these limitations were completely subverted by the creation of super PACs with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

A super PAC can raise limitless funds from any individual, corporation, union or other groups and can conceal their donors. Often, very wealthy individuals or groups will form a corporation with the express purpose of donating money to a super PAC. So, it is time to report its donors, the super PAC only has to reveal the name of the corporation — not its individual members. These groups can also choose to report their donors on a quarterly basis (which they often do), waiting until after November to disclose whose money fueled its political advertising.

Politicians know that a well-designed and relentless advertising campaign can make or break an election. Votes can depend on perceptions created through advertising — especially in congressional elections where voters have not had nearly as much exposure to the candidates. Politicians also know the groups or individuals who bankroll their campaigns. Who is an elected official more likely to keep in mind when voting on bills or allocating important funds — the average voter who gets to cast one vote or the very wealthy corporation with the power to sway thousands?

As painful as it is to admit, our system is beginning to look like an oligarchy. With every election cycle, more and more money enters the system through a small, often-anonymous group of wealthy individuals. While we watch attack ads do their best to besmirch someone we haven’t taken the time to learn about, we forget that a small group of de-facto “kingmakers” can shift an election one way or another. The way the system works today, elections can be hijacked by the hyper wealthy to protect their interests, while everyone else’s welfare is ignored. Whether through campaign finance reform or through a more educated and politically active public, something must change to bring democracy back into U.S. politics.