Even after months of news stories, opinion polls, bar graphs and superlatives, the historic sums spent on the 2010 midterms still take my breath away.
Four billion dollars.
That’s about a billion more than we saw spent in the last midterm, and even a billion more than was spent on the not-so-distant 2000 presidential election.
It may have been a boon to the lucky Americans working in political consulting or broadcasting industries that reaped profits from this midterm “stimulus,” but the campaign spending excesses this year were a net loss for the country.
I’m not talking about the Democrats’ “shellacking,” but about our democracy.
In the wake of a pair of terrible Supreme Court decisions and a series of self-defeating rulings by the Federal Election Commission, the story of this election cycle was not just the sheer amount of money spent but the sources of that money, namely the unlimited and often undisclosed amounts spent by corporations, interest groups and individuals on “independent expenditures.”
To members of both parties back in Washington for this lame-duck session, I urge you to put political calculus aside — in fact, the total sums spent on both sides may well turn out to be roughly equal — and ask yourself whether this is the system you want your kids to inherit:
• Orwellian advertisements run by shadow groups with misleading names that spew half-truths and leave voters with little or no sense of who the speaker really is.
• Local races swamped by outside spending by individuals who refuse to identify themselves even as they try to polarize the electorate.
• Legal factions formed solely with the purpose of building wealth and creating a profit given the same rights to participate in the political process as individual citizens, who may well hope to build wealth but also have to navigate having a family, staying healthy, growing old, avoiding pain and pursuing happiness.
• A public that overwhelmingly believes corporations have too great an influence in Washington, and the average citizen too little. (And it’s not just the public. A poll commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development found that more than half of business leaders surveyed believed that corporations contribute to campaigns primarily to influence the political process.)
This isn’t a healthy forum for free exchange and honest disagreement; it is a self-perpetuating oligarchy. And even though Karl Rove, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a host of conservative nonprofits and “super PACs” helped make the post-Citizens United world a favorable climate for Republicans this time around, they should be wary of the monster they are creating.
In this environment, it is unlikely that President Barack Obama will renew the call he made to ask progressive groups to limit their independent spending.
A vital first step toward turning back the tide is for this Congress to finally pass the DISCLOSE Act and force those who wish to influence the political process, corporation and individual alike, to make their names known. That’s the bare minimum Congress can do, and they need to do it this year while they have the best shot to do so.
But this is only the first step, and it will fall to the next Congress to pass more meaningful reform. Work has already started on important legislation such as the Fair Elections Now Act. There is a growing movement to amend the Constitution to restore the First Amendment to its original focus on citizens and allow for reasonable restrictions on corporations.
A recent poll commissioned by People for the American Way shows that the vast majority of the electorate — by 3-1 margins, Democrats, Republicans and Independents — would favor such an amendment if necessary.
Looking at the new Congressional class doesn’t exactly make me wildly optimistic, but I’m not without hope. If the tea party stands for anything, it is for the rights of individual citizens over big money and big business. Let’s see if they hold true to their principles.
The Democratic Party has steadily favored campaign finance reform — even when it meant requiring disclosure from pro-Democratic “527” political groups. It wasn’t that long ago that a majority of Republican Members of Congress did, too.
All it will take is a few Republicans to decide to represent the interests of their constituents — and not the interests of these shadowy outside groups — for the 2012 elections to be, if not more frugal, at least more fair.
Donna Brazile, who managed the Gore/Lieberman campaign in 2000, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and political contributor on CNN and ABC News.