Could a narrow focus on Citizens United actually set back our drive for democracy?
That's been a real worry of mine, but my thinking has been fussy. So I was relieved to see Matt Bai, the New York Times Magazine's political correspondent, take on the challenge of deciphering what can and cannot be laid at the feet of this awful ruling.
In "How Did Political Money Get This Loud?" Bai suggests that Citizens United mainly "intensified" unintended consequences of earlier reforms. He argues that the burst of political spending in the last two years, while huge, is actually in line with the trajectory of growth in campaign spending since McCain-Feingold reforms in 2002.
He stresses that the biggest consequence of McCain-Feingold and Citizens United may not be the staggering scale of spending, but that "candidates don't really have control of their own campaigns anymore..."
With the passage of McCain-Feingold, Bai explains, "parties could no longer tap an endless stream of soft money [unlimited contributions used in a range of party activities not directly asking for votes]." So they turned to another means: "independent groups with their own turnout and advertising campaigns limited in what they could say," emphasizes Bai, "but accountable to no candidate or party boss..."
Then, Citizens United and related Court decisions wiped out most remaining limits, so "[n]ow any outside group can use corporate money to make a direct case for who deserves your vote and why, and they can do so right up to Election Day." The big outside groups today are "social-welfare groups" (including, believe it or not, Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity) and Super PACs, and the difference between them? Super PACs must disclose donors' identities, but social-welfare groups generally don't.
Many will likely debate Bai's analysis, but my concern is what it misses altogether:
"That there are solutions we can realize at least in part in the foreseeable future."
We can move democracy forward even before a new Supreme Court majority reversing Citizens United or victory in a long battle for a constitutional amendment.
Wonderfully, Americans are united across political divisions in our anger at big money's control of politics. Sixty-seven percent of us favor "voluntary public financing" of elections, already enabling regular citizens to run for the legislature in three states. And two-thirds of Americans also support disclosure of large contributors.
So let's get on with building a bipartisan uprising of voters with the guts to insist that candidates we support in November pledge to back DISCLOSE Act and Fair Elections legislation -- now being refined in Congress -- and that, once in place, they use this system, not private wealth, for their campaigns. (Under the "fair elections" bill, a candidate raises a specific number of small, in-state contributions -- each no bigger than $100 -- to qualify for significant public funds, both a lump sum and five dollars for each small-donor dollar up to a cap.) And let's demand that candidates we support denounce any unaccountable electioneering bodies, whether backing them or other candidates.
Note that the DISCLOSE Act failed last week to achieve the super majority it needed by only nine votes. Nine is an achievable shift this November.
We can't afford to wait for the Supreme Court. We can't afford to wait for a constitutional amendment. Let's focus now on electing a president and a Congress who share the majority's position on these foundational questions. On this path, we begin to reduce the power of concentrated wealth in public decision making as we also build the inclusive citizen pressure necessary to reverse laws and rulings hindering solutions to all our biggest national challenges.