In politics, cash rules everything around you. And more and more, that cash is getting passed from anonymous plutocrats and concentrated into the hands of vague-sounding political action committees. Those PACs then fund candidates, and those candidates come to Washington to do whatever it was the plutocrats wanted done in the first place. Typically, this is: take my investment in your campaign, double the money, make a stack, and hand deliver it to my mountain compound in the Alps.
It can be hard to penetrate the mystery, but one organization that's going to be doing its level best to try is the Sunlight Foundation. And the good folks over there have created a fun widget for people to play with:
The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that led to the explosion of independent expenditures in the midterm elections also spurred a growing list of meaningless titles for organizations. Here at the Sunlight Foundation we will continue to advocate for strong disclosure laws, but we also thought we could have some fun with these vacuous names that simply serve as filing fodder. As we trolled through the spending records from the midterm elections we were shocked at how many people seem to $peak out in favor of common sense, families and the future! Political Action Committees often have bizarre names, but as more and more groups pop up to shield the identity of the donors, the names seem to get even more off topic.
Head on over to Sunlight's site, and you can use their tool to randomly generate PAC names of varying absurdity. It's great for some cynical laughs, but it also got us thinking: What can it teach us about what we should name our own political action committee. Joined by HuffPost Hill's Eliot Nelson, we decided to take it for a spin:
Jason Linkins: Hello, Eliot!
Eliot Nelson: Hello, Jason! Salutations!
Jason Linkins: We who are about to rock salute you! So, we're talking today about the Sunlight Foundation's Random PAC Name Generator, which is the latest in an array of transparency awareness-raising widgets that they've been pushing out over the past year. This item is more satirical than practical, and, if I understand correctly, you have some misgivings about it?
Eliot Nelson: That's right, Jason. While I applaud the Sunlight Foundation for not just showing how the sausage is made but examining each nugget of pork-beef blend as it plops out of the grinder, I have to say I'm a tad disappointed with this venture.
Jason Linkins: What disappoints you about it?
Eliot Nelson: Naming political action committees is a delicate art, one that requires a solid sociopathic foundation. The very goal of a PAC name is to mislead the observer into thinking its mission statement is something entirely different from what it actually advocates. Take, for example, Newt Gingrich's electoral side project. It calls itself American Solutions, which would suggest that it intends to defeat Osama bin Laden by cooking him a turducken. Yet all it really wants to do is abolish the estate tax and legislate how pleated our pants can be.
However, in my opinion, the PAC names the Sunlight generator spits out are a little too, well, cartoonish. Take John Thune's PAC, Heartland Values -- whose raison d'etre I believe is to throw gays into a volcano-- as an example of the subtle, PAC name ideal.
Jason Linkins: Good point. When it comes to coming up with a PAC name, the overarching goal seems to be winning that race to the bottom of the barrel of banal. "American Solutions." "Americans For America." "Our Country Deserves Better," which leaves room for ideological allies to take up a more militant, "Our Country Deserves The Best." And not, say, "A Heartbreaking PAC of Staggering Genius." And certainly not, "Have We Tried Throwing The Gays Into A Volcano? Well Have We?"
Eliot Nelson: That sounds nice, right? Heartland Values??? I'd be more than happy to throw a few dollars their way. Right? WRONG! I don't want to throw gays into a volcano!
Jason Linkins: Yeah, I mean, who opposes "Heartland Values?" and then you find out it's some Polynesian-themed exercise in homophobia and you're like, "Hold on!" Except not really, because most of these PACs will be presenting themselves in the most occluded fashion possible. But it's probably going to be people like the Sunlight Foundation who penetrate this cloak and dagger stuff.
Eliot Nelson: It's a sad day when you discover the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain is a pasty white guy from Topeka who just wants us to renew NAFTA.
Jason Linkins: Yeah, you really had to sit through ZARDOZ to figure that out. I guess for the sake of presenting a countering argument, you know... FOR BALANCE... I'd say that the value of this exercise is to just roll out something fun for people to do, while being reminded that the Sunlight Foundation exists, and maybe the next time you see a "Heartland Values" ad on the teevee, you think, "Hmmm. I wonder what Sunlight says about these guys."
Also, it's hard to come up with names for things! "Heartland Values" is a great PAC name and it's taken! Three years ago, Sam Stein and Nico Pitney and I briefly took up the task of naming our political blog, but we found out that so many good names for political blogs had already been taken. And also: we did not have masters degrees in brand marketing! We also found that out! We batted back and forth ideas like "The Grind" and "The Filter," and "The Drip," and we basically said, "Maybe we need some coffee?" So we got coffee, and our next ideas were like, "The Crust" and "The Spread" and "The Filling," and Nico was all, "Anyone feel like getting sandwiches?" I thought that "The Velvet Underground (with Nico)" was a good idea. Everyone had a good laugh! (And I went out and bought some heroin, which really didn't help things.)
Eliot Nelson: All true, Jason. Perhaps I'm just a stickler when it comes to comedic misfiring in our nation's capital. Remember that cat video put out by Nancy Pelosi's office that ultimately turned into a Rick Roll? Hilarious! Except for the end when it provided a link explaining what a "Rick Roll" actually is. Sardonic entreaty to Millennials RUINED! Arghhh! Meme over! Stab me in the eye! (Is that taken? Stab Me In The Eye PAC?)
Anyway, shall we get our generatin' on?
Jason Linkins: Yes! Let's! I think that you and I can and should come up with our own PAC, maybe one with goal of keeping grey-haired politicians away from the Millennials' precious Internet memes, which will inevitably cause some sort of double-dip recession on Tumblr. For the sake of gleaning what insight we can from the Sunlight Foundation's Random Name Generator, let's cycle through a few random selections, and react to them.
Here's the first! And it's only going to confirm your criticism, I think.
"We Have A Preference For Love"
Jason Linkins: I say, this is bad. Not just for the "Let's rebrand NAMBLA" feel. It equivocates! You have a "preference?" No, no. Take a goddamn stand!
Eliot Nelson: Yeah, weak sauce. Unless, of course, the organization's goal is the dissemination of hate. If I were the Klan, I'd be all over this sucker. Also, isn't this the title of a Yo La Tengo album?
Jason Linkins: Right. This works for an organization that's made up of the most bloodthirsty neocons imaginable. This is Marc Thiessen, of the We Have A Preference For Love PAC.
Eliot Nelson: If nothing else, it conjures the image of Paul Wolfowitz and Charles Krauthammer swaying rhythmically in a drum circle.
Jason Linkins: The next selection, I feel, is much better...
"Just Some Ordinary People for Better Things"
Eliot Nelson: Absolutely no doubt in my mind that JSOPFBT is a shadow group for the Chamber of Commerce.
Jason Linkins: AGREED. The "Just Some" has a touch of the same equivocation, but coupled with the folksy ordinary people, it works. "We just think we should have some better stuff, you know? We're not actually monsters from Harvard Business School."
Eliot Nelson: Let's break this one down in accordance with the PAC rule of opposites: "Just" = that and a whole lot of other things. "Some" = every single corporate board member in the world. "Ordinary" (See "Some"). "People" = Capitalist running dogs who want nothing more than to institute swipe fees on your front door lock. "Better things" = Oh lord. The worst things. Absolutely the worst.
Jason Linkins: This PAC backed Nixon's campaign in "Futurama", basically.
Eliot Nelson: It is my professional conclusion that is a joint effort from Walmart, BP and Monsanto to euthanize your dog
Jason Linkins: Uhm... the next one is... interesting...
"Industry Magnates for Hot Beverage Alternatives"
Eliot Nelson: I have just one YouTube for you:
Jason Linkins: Exactly. Moving on.
"Different Folks for the Amendments."
Jason Linkins:: This calls to mind "Diff'rent Strokes," so this is how the Chamber of Commerce "goes urban," I think.
Eliot Nelson: Which is to say this is probably an attempt to lower USDA standards for beef.
Jason Linkins: Right. Jack Donaghy gets Tracy Jordan to shoot the commercial, and he's paid in stew.
Eliot Nelson: We will have to return to your thoughts on a beef barter economy at some other point. I am intrigued.
Jason Linkins: Working on it. I'm really hoping I beat Glenn Beck's sponsors to the ground floor on that one. Anyway, we could go on and on. Moving on...
"Anonymous Donors against Evil."
Eliot Nelson: Well this is just a layup
Jason Linkins: You know, the anonymity is the part that causes so much concern with people. BUT! If you are fighting "evil," who can blame you for keeping your name out of it?
Eliot Nelson: "Hi, I'm Mike Huckabee. It seems like less and less these days we're talking about the need to exhume and reanimate Pol Pot."
Jason Linkins: Well, look. I think that we have a little more clarity on what makes for a good PAC name. Be firm. Be vague. Be folksy. Mine sympathy. If you've decided to do something nefarious, use your name to invert your intentions. And a dash of childlike whimsy isn't always a bad thing, as long as it doesn't immediately read as Web 3.0 era irony. What none of these suggestions did, I'm sure by the fluke of my clicking, is emphasize a patriotic concept -- America, God, Country -- but like we started out talking about, that stuff helps as well.
Eliot Nelson: Absolutely. A rule of thumb when it comes to assessing PACs is that the wholesomeness of the name usually is inversely related to the PAC's benefit to society. The more enticing the name the more likely your dollars will contribute to a charred American hellscape populated by Grover Norquist disciples. I'm not sure if there's a PuppyPAC but if there is, it probably advocates for animal testing of restless leg syndrome medication.
Jason Linkins: OK. So, our PAC. What shall we call it?
Eliot Nelson: Well my first instinct is Final American Solutions PAC. The name is bland and pleasant and the obvious allusion to genocide means it will advocate for the opposite of genocide, like ending world hunger or something. However I feel as if I would be insulting countless generations of my ancestors -- most of whom toiled away in shtetls so that I could eat Cheetos and get paid to write about Four Loko-- by referencing the Shoah. So our mission is to come up with something that doesn't reference mankind's inherent darkness and adheres to the Opposite Rule of PACs (So we don't force ourselves to lobby for the expedited arrival of End Times). It's not an easy charge.
Jason Linkins: It's not. And we don't have master's degrees in brand marketing! We're just some everyday people who want money for good stuff. But we can't just be "Everyday People Who Want Money For Good Stuff."
Eliot Nelson: No, that would mean we want the federal government to allocate funds for burning ants with a magnifying glass. And something like "Evildoers for rashes" is just too unappetizing.
Jason Linkins: How about AMERICA'S RENEWAL SERVES EVERYONE? To my mind, it has some key virtues. We want to TAKE, so we sell people on GIVING. But we don't want to promise giving, so we say "RENEW." "SERVES EVERYONE" sounds great, but you and I are erudite and we know that we're referencing "TO SERVE MAN."
Eliot Nelson: Sigh. But the opposite rule means that our renewal serves no one! Jason, we're stuck: If we come up with an appealing name, it means we have to lobby for evil. If we come up with a repulsive, disgusting title, no one will contribute to our cause. I say we split the different and GO NEUTRAL. Jason, I move that we name our political action committee:
"Things for Things PAC"
Eliot Nelson: Sure it means that no one will actually find what we do appealing and we won't accomplish anything, but that's kind of the democratic process, no?
Jason Linkins: I can get down with this! If we promise nothing, we can't possibly fail to deliver on that promise! At the end of the day, we'll actually be able to say that we continually achieve our objectives.
Eliot Nelson: Agreed. But Jason, if we're going to pervert the legislative process, let's do it right. We need a townhouse. All the top dawgs have townhouses near the Capitol where they host fundraisers that bring together top lobbyists and elected officials. Townhouses are the 22-inch rims of the PAC world: they denote one's ballerness. UPS has a townhouse! The Chamber of Commerce has a townhouse! Next time we do this, we need to find a suitable home for Things for Things PAC.
Jason Linkins: I was thinking we could just do this out of Nico's place, actually. That way, when this all goes sideways on us, he can take the fall.
Eliot Nelson: Seconded!
Jason Linkins: All right! Everyone's invited to the THINGS FOR THINGS FOUR LOKO FUNDRAISER this Saturday at Nico Pitney's house. Thanks, Sunlight Foundation!
Eliot Nelson: God bless America!
Sunlight's Political Action Committee (PAC) Name Generator [Sunlight Foundation]