SuperPacs are debasing our democracy

This is an election where candidates are running against each other, but also, to an unprecedented extent, against outside advertisers.
We now have faux “Americans” carrying out a political assault on real America. Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security, American Solutions, American Crossroads, American Action Network and the American Future Fund are among the leading organizations spending hundreds of millions of dollars in total from corporations and deep-pocketed billionaires to tilt this election.
Much of this inflow would not have been possible without the Citizens United decision. But as important as the specific legal consequence of Citizens United was its signal to business interests that Wild West rules now prevail for elections: No holds barred, and whoever has the biggest gun and most bullets will win.
Does all this corporate and billionaire money make a difference in the political process? Certainly the corporations and individuals doing the spending think so. They know that vicious attack ads work. And attack ads from unaccountable organizations with no real membership work best of all. At least candidates who run negative ads must pay a reputational price for running nasty ads; the faux American groups — the SuperPacs — don’t care about their reputation, so aren’t susceptible even to this modest form of accountability.
The degrading of our political discourse via attack ads is a social bad in its own right, but is nothing compared to the impact in discouraging and disillusioning voters, who too often respond with a pox-on-all-their-houses decision to stay at home.
The corporate- and billionaire-backed SuperPacs say that they just balance the field as against labor-backed groups, but in fact, business spending on elections is an order of magnitude greater than labor spending.
Making all of this even worse is that most of the faux American SuperPacs do not disclose their funders, so in most cases we don’t know who the real backers are of these ephemeral organizations. The DISCLOSE Act, which Republicans blocked in the Senate, would cure this problem, and should be passed in the lame duck session. We should not be subjected to such a debasement of democracy in the 2012 elections.
But disclosure is a very modest and very inadequate cure for the ills now befalling us. We have to replace the current campaign finance system altogether. That means two things. First, Congress must pass the Fair Elections Now Act, to replace the system of private financing of our public elections, and return control of elections to the voters. Then, we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and clarify that corporations do not have a First Amendment right to influence our elections. Democracy is, after all, rule by the people.

Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen.


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