How to Return Democracy to the People
“All politicians are the same” is a common refrain you hear from voters these days.
Tired of an era dominated with partisan gamesmanship, negative attack ads, and slick politicians whose word is about as trustworthy as a mule, many voters have simply given up on the process entirely, handing over their fate to a select few of high-pocketed elites.
That process has been tainted with the excesses of outside interest groups through Super PACS, which have been allowed to spend freely in our elections — without limit — in the wake of the Supreme Court’s woefully negligent Citizens United decision.
The Court has effectively gutted the nation’s campaign finance laws through a series of decisions dating back to the 1970s, allowing corporations, wealthy individuals and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to decide our elections and heavily influence lawmaking — for their own benefit. This year, five of the nine justices voted to gut limits on aggregate contributions in a given election cycle to federal candidates and national political parties.
Never mind the fact that the $117,000 contribution limit to candidates and parties is already 125 percent more than the median American household income.
Outside interest groups spent nearly $1.3 billion in the 2012 election cycle alone. And those were only for federal offices!
How can average voters expect to compete with big money?
It’s impossible for working class voters to go dollar-for-dollar against billionaire-backed Super PACs. The good news for our democracy is that they don’t need to.
For one, the law of diminishing returns tells us that election ad spending has an increasingly limited impact the more that is spent. Whether you run an ad 10,000 times or 11,000 times does not make much difference. It has already saturated the market; voters will simply begin to tune it out.
(However, the money can still be used for more nefarious purposes, such as sending out deceitful mailings with inaccurate information on voter deadlines, voting locations, etc. These tactics almost always go unpunished, even though they are illegal, since it is difficult to prove purposeful intent.)
Second, creativity is more important than total dollars spent. Running an adept campaign with a cohesive argument, solid financial support and a likable candidate is a better bet than a cookie-cutter campaign with tens of millions of corporate-backed dollars.
An example of this is the campaign of Rick Weiland, a folksy underdog running for Senate in South Dakota. Weiland is not your typical politician. For one, he has not made a career of elected office. But more importantly, he believes that it is people-power that will turn back the clock on Citizens United.
Weiland has visited over 300 towns using the power of music in a cross-state trek to win the hearts and minds of voters. His tunes are familiar but the lyrics — like most good songs — have meaning. They rail against the influence of corporate interests and the “1 percent”.
Weiland was written off as hopeless at the beginning of the cycle, going up against a well-financed, entrenched former governor with support from Wall Street. The folksy underdog is now within a few points of winning the Senate seat in a state where Mitt Romney won nearly 58 percent of the vote in 2012.
If he wins, he promises that his first bill in the Senate will be to propose a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. While it has a long way from passage — Senate Republicans blocked a similar attempt just weeks ago in a 54 to 42 vote that required a 2/3 majority — Weiland’s election would send a signal across the country that big money politicians can be defeated.
Now, some might take this argument and say that it proves that unlimited spending is fine under the right circumstances. It is not. Research has shown the corrupting nature of money in politics.
Princeton researchers, in fact, argue that the United States is now an oligarchy where moneyed interests rule the roost.
“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” the researchers conclude.
In other words, the current political system is unresponsive to average American voters — something that most people already acknowledge as true.
The question is, how do we return to a system that is responsive to average voters?
Unique campaign strategies in the face of corporate and shadowy billionaire campaign donation tsunamis are a critical component. Creativity is ultimately the best way to win the attention of voters.
Supporting candidates that will overturn Citizens United and restrict campaign cash is another must. Sensible restrictions on election spending make sense for a functioning democracy. They dilute the corrupting influence of cash and allow our lawmakers to focus on the interests of their constituents rather than the interests of their few key mega-donors.
And finally, an organized effort to overturn Citizens United must be realized on a national level. One such group — Mayday PAC — is a Super PAC that was created to end Super PACs. It supports candidates who will vote for a constitutional amendment to return power to average voters. We need more groups like this on a grassroots level to press candidates up and down the ballot from state legislators who will need to approve a constitutional amendment at the state-level to members of the US House and Senate.
Only through these actions will we restore American democracy to its rightful owners: We the People.