Empire in Decline: Drowning out the “Vox Populi”

2012 is going to be an interesting year.  Assuming the Mayans got it wrong and the world does not end on December 21st, we are looking at year of ever-increasing instability.  As the Arab Spring shows no signs of letting up, as the economy continues to struggle amidst the euro-crisis, and as the national debt continues to soar, we Americans will be charged with the task of deciding who it is that we believe can best guide us through these tumultuous waters?

Unfortunately, as we approach the November elections, we do so as a people newly crippled by what the New York Times calls the “most conservative” Supreme Court in decades.[1]   Back in 2008, a non-profit corporation called Citizens United fought for the right to air a film called Hillary: The Movie within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries.  At stake was the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which sought to regulate the financing of political campaigns.  While the lower courts upheld the 2002 BCRA, the Supreme Court took up the case on appeal in January of 2008 and reversed the ruling of the lower courts.

So what does that mean in practical terms?  Well, in short, the case did not alter the ban on corporations and unions donating to either candidate campaigns or political parties.  Those limitations are still in effect.  But what it did do was make it legal for corporations and unions to pump unlimited amounts of money into politically oriented groups that theoretically operate independently of individuals seeking office.

Still not seeing the problem?  Well let’s take Newt Gingrich as an example.  Prior to this ruling, no one could make a contribution to Gingrich’s campaign that was greater than $2500.  And that is still true.  But now, what someone can do is make a $30 million donation to a theoretically independent group that can invest that money into the election cycle in any way that it sees fit.

So what are candidates such as Gingrich, Romney, Obama, etc. doing?  All of them are creating Super-PACs, which can raise and spend as much money as they want.  Technically, these Super-PACs are not allowed to directly coordinate with any particular campaign.  But what happens is that supporters of each candidate create a Super-PAC on behalf of their candidate of choice and use the money solely to support his/her campaign.  Then, as happened last spring in Gingrich’s campaign, an aide will leave the official campaign to take on a leadership role with the affiliated Super-PAC.  Following that, the candidate will legally begin to raise money for his or her Super-PAC, effectively by-passing the limitations on how much an individual, corporation or union can contribute to the candidate.

Can you see where this is going?  In the past, Big Tabaco was prohibited from contributing money directly to an individual candidate.  Sure, there were other ways that pressure was applied, but there were limitations in place that sought to protect the integrity of the election process.  Now, if Big Tabaco wants a favorable ruling to pass, it has all the power of its bankroll at its disposal.  “Hey Newt.  You want a nice $20 million dollar donation going to your Super-PAC?  This is how you’re going to vote.  And if you don’t, we’ll take our $20 million elsewhere …”

In an interview with Time Magazine, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter had this to say:

“We’re suddenly entering a very different world where people with large sums of money, if they choose, are going to be able to spend it easily in ways that may buy elections.”

This is a problem for all American citizens.  But for those of us who profess to believe in Jesus the Christ – for those of us who are charged with defending the poor – this is monumental.  For the voice of the poor, which is already severely muted in our society, is only going to get weaker when money of this magnitude is allowed to be funneled into politics in this manner.  This is why, we, as Christians, should be on the forefront of the fight to restore campaign finance restrictions.  While I understand the issues related to the first amendment and the protection of free speech, we have to ask the question: whose right to speak is being protected here?  The vox populi or the vox opulenta?

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5 Responses to Empire in Decline: Drowning out the “Vox Populi”

  1. Carrot says:

    Everyone has a right to speak, but those of the poor or the downtrodden are ignored with no power. Heck, look at OWS protestors – they’re branded as lazy and wanting a free ride out of the gate never mind the masses of over worked, underpaid, dying of cancer because the insurance they have won’t cover anything beyond making the appointment. Its easier to mock the students that took out loans because it was “their choice” but much harder to mock the Marine home from two wars and can’t get health coverage or even a job. But you see those homeless guys in the media coverage.

    This, tragically, isn’t new. Look at every major revolution that brought a nation to their absolute knees and you’ll see such a gaping divide between the feasting and the famine. You don’t need a monarch to have a class of “Divine Right of Kings”, you just need wealth and a lack of understanding of those that don’t. You might think that its impossible that anyone could look out into the world and fail to realize that not every one is living the life they are and with a little more effort, they too could have caviar on their morning toast. But being born on third base makes hitting that home run a whole lot easier. I had a boss who disbelieved that I could ever be late for work because I lived in a part of the city where there were no taxis. I was, after all, white and working an office job. How could I be poor? If you lived in a world where there was no poor people, how would you recognize one if you saw one? If you never had to worry about your bills, can you understand the juggling it takes to balance them?

    While I think (hope) we are passed the era where chopping off heads and shooting those to the manor born in a basement, I don’t think we’re pass violence in general. The question is, can we hold off the violence long enough for the reason to come back, for people to start figuring out that we’re in danger – above and below – and take steps to rectify it.

    But I don’t think so. When people are threatened, they entrench themselves and close ranks to protect what they think they are about to loose. Its why those on the fringes disbelieve they’re part of the 99%, because to identify with the very top of the world means that you are not of the bottom. If you believe hard enough, you won’t fall and become a “nothing”. Those at the top cannot – (giving benefit of the doubt on will not) admit there is a problem and those at the bottom have nothing left to loose.

    And we both know which group is the more dangerous when the damn finally breaks.

    • Clearly, my concern here is with the poor. But truth be told, this should concern every middle class American as well. Because we don’t have the money to compete with the corporations and unions, and our voice will be snuffed out just as efficiently if we’re not careful.

      • Carrot says:

        Until such time as there are prohibitions against donations limitless corporate pockets, there will be no voice for those that only have pocket change. I don’t know how effective it’ll be – back to the problem of fighting something with unlimited resources – but it gives me hope that if there’s enough pissed off people, this will be the revolution that happens and not one with blood in the streets.


  2. Interesting you should write about Super Pacs. Last year I went to something called the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference, and at one of the breakout sessions they talked about the utility of Super Pacs. Unfortunately if I remember correctly, they are probably only useful for those who have very deep pockets. I think it was stated that they may not be economcially viable unless a candidate or those supporting a candidate expect they can raise at least about $50,000 through such a vehicle.

    I have a few reactions to your article and take on the subject. You mentioned that you do acknowledge there are issues related to the First Amendment and the freedom of speech related to restrictions on campaign finance. That ends the argument as far as I’m concerned. Not only is the freedom of speech a Constitutionally protected right, I believe it is a God given natural right. If a voluntary association is legally barred from raising money and airing Hillary: The Movie at a politically crucial time, we have lost the freedom of speech in this country and that would be a travesty in my book. I remember a story about how there was technically freedom of the press in the old Soviet Union. But if there was a dissident group that owned a printing press, the means whereby a dissenting opinion could be effectively published, the printing press could be legally confiscated or destroyed by the authorities. SOME FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION!!!!! How is resticting the raising or expending of money for the purpose of political speech in 2012 America conceptually any different than smashing printing presses in Russia?

    As far as the ethical implications, I am the first to admit that corporate and union money do influence elections and politicians. And all to often (but not always) their influence is not condusive to good public policy. But those with resources have ALWAYS used those resources to sway public policy in America (and probably every other nation in the world), and probably always will until Jesus returns. And even though this went on, we in the United States had pretty good government for a good hundred, hundred fifty years, and to some extent even still do.

    There are many different methods whereby poltical speech can be disseminated to the people. State run media can disseminate ideas and all others can be barred (i.e. China, North Korea). A small number of “independent” media outlets can report political info and candidates can be severly restricted from raising their own money whereby to tell their own story. Theoretically all campaigns could be 100% publically financed in which case the rights of those who don’t quallify will be infringed. Or thinking about recent history, contributions to candidates can be partially restricted. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. In some past election cycles, big money flowed to issue advocacy ads or through 527’s. This year it will apparently go through Super-PAC’s. Trying to restrict it legally will only serve to benefit the super-rich who have the deep pockets to jump through the loopholes that the less well to do can’t afford to navigate.

    Even though money undoubtely influences elections and policy, ultimately corporations and unions can’t vote, only American citizens can. And sadly, I believe too many Americans today are not nearly as engaged in the poltical process today as they should be. I am also concerned that too many Americans do not understand or appreciate the principles of limited government, Constitutionalism, and the Christian Faith that are responsible for the historical strength of our nation. Sadly, we get the government we deserve. Campaign finance reform, banning coroporate/union contributions, and limiting political speech and expression won’t change that. If we don’t like the government we get, we need to vote the bums out and vote statesmen in! Goldman Sachs and the Teamsters can compete for our attention but they can’t force us to vote one way or the other. Only when Americans take the responsibility, education themselves as to the elements of a sound economy and public policy, and begin to vote their values again, will the poor, the middle class, and every citizen be properly served in the halls of government.

    • Morning Josh,

      So I finished reading your reply and I want to push back just a bit. But please know that this “push back” is in the interest of learning. Sites typically deteriorate in one of two directions. The comment section either becomes a chorus of self-congratulatory amens, or it becomes a venue for nasty, hate-filled polemics. And neither furthers real discourse. So I’m pushing back, but I’m honestly hoping that you will find the heart in my comments and help me understand where you are coming from.

      In your comments above, you suggest that my open acknowledgement that this is a freedom of speech issue “ends the argument as far as [you’re] concerned.” You go on to say: “Not only is the freedom of speech a Constitutionally protected right, I believe it is a God given natural right.” Hear me clearly: I agree with everything you just said. I do. And I will always be one who defends the right of people to speak. In fact, it is on that ground that I am standing against the creation of Super-PACs. I personally believe that Super-PACs restrict the freedom of speech in that they essentially create an environment where only the rich can be heard. And broadly speaking, the rich don’t have a problem making themselves heard.

      Let’s look at this through a slightly different lens. Almost every capitalist recognizes that monopolies are a “bad thing.” Monopolies, by virtue of their size, wealth, and power, overwhelm their smaller competition and eventually overtake the marketplace with their monolithic presence. When that happens, innovation is stifled, and the economy suffers.

      Can you not see how these same principles apply to the realm of politics? When we allow for the creation of Super-PACS, we are allowing for a political monopoly to form. We are cementing a two-party system that excludes other viable alternatives. And when that happens, political innovation and creativity suffers, and the population’s ability to authentically choose between alternatives is radically diminished. While I fully agree with your statement that many Americans are not nearly as politically engaged as they should be, I think it is somewhat disingenuous to simply put this on the backs of lazy Americans. I think a lot of the reason that people have “checked out” is because they no longer see a genuine choice being offered. Take me for instance. While I haven’t “checked out” and while I still vote in elections, there is no way that I believe in either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. But there’s no viable alternatives out there. And Super-PACs only exacerbate this problem. Just look at the Iowa caucuses. People are already talking about Romney’s Super-PAC spending $4 million dollars on advertising that was dedicated to shredding Gingrich. They buried Gingrich just by virtue of having the money to outspend him. Are Romney’s ideas better? Maybe. Maybe not. But we won’t likely find out because Gingrich is being silenced by money.

      One last thought. There is a another problem with Super-PACs, a problem I did not discuss in the main post. What about foreign influence? Most companies with deep, deep pockets are transnational by nature, and as such, they have economic interests in foreign countries. How can a government such as ours even begin to regulate who is being allowed to invest in Super-PACs. Sure, you can say: “No foreign investors.” But how do you control that when transnational companies have their fingers in so many foreign entities?

      Can you help me, friend? Cause I’m not seeing how these monstrosities protect free speech. I’m seeing the creation of political monopolies that further restrict alternative voices from having an impact on society.

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