Over the years I have worked on a number of campaigns. Some were the traditional kind we all think of -- a candidate for office, telephone banks and leaflets. Others were issue campaigns, like working on New Jersey's Family Leave initiative, more about writing and testifying than door-to-door work. And then there are the direct action community-based efforts, like getting radium contamination cleaned up in four suburban communities.
These campaigns differ in a number of respects but in one fundamental way they are the same: they all require work. They can take years of effort by dozens, scores, hundreds of people to accomplish. Bearing that in mind, I can almost (almost) see where the CEOs and big corporations are coming from with their ramped-up investments in political spending this year. With all the work it takes to win a campaign fair and square, wouldn't it be easier to just cut a check?
Buying direct access to high-level policymakers is so much more efficient than building a constituency, letter-writing campaigns and press events. And in a culture that worships at the altar of the almighty dollar, obviously if you have enough money to buy an election or railroad your pet project through the legislative process, you must be doing something right.
To the wealthy go the spoils -- in this case, the power to decide for all of us what is in our best interest. Sadly for us, the short-term interests of the moneyed elite have an unfortunate tendency to diverge from the interests of the greater public.
We see this pattern time and again where big corporate interests and small business interests are concerned. As a small business owner, I am repeatedly flabberghasted by the rhetoric I hear in the name of small business and the total disconnect with my "on the ground" experience... until I think through how the machinery of policymaking today works and how that machinery is lubricated. That is, by big -- and very often secret -- money.
How can a small business owner feel so powerless and so misrepresented when groups abound that claim to have my back? In the political discourse, small business is as lovable as a baby or a puppy. Who would ever hurt a puppy? And therein lies a good deal of raw power, waiting to be tapped.
All a corporate CEO needs to do is write a check to the right group (say, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS), which then channels your money quietly to another group that claims to speak for small business (say, the National Federation of Independent Business) and viola, your CEO is getting away with small business identity theft -- stealing the good name of small business to advance his personal agenda.
That hypothetical scenario is all too real. In fact, the NFIB took $3.7 million from Crossroads GPS in 2010, and we don't know where that money really came from because GPS doesn't have to disclose its donors. And that's not all NFIB got from secret contributors. NFIB and its Legal Center took in over $10 million in six-figure contributions in 2010 and 2011 (coinciding with its move to challenge the Affordable Care Act in court) after zero six-figure contributions in 2009. Coincidence? You tell me. No wonder groups like NFIB take positions that seem to serve the interests of big corporations and their CEOs -- for example, their stand against ending the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent -- at the expense of businesses like mine.
If all this manipulation and deception is as clear to you as it is to me -- money, power distortion -- then what can we do? A good place to start would be removing dark money from politics. At least own your words and deeds when it comes to your politics. If you can't do it publicly, then you probably shouldn't be doing it at all.
In the end, it doesn't really matter what your cause is. Whether you care about the environment or the second amendment, as long as someone with deep pockets is buying access and influence, your cause is lost. This is a uniting issue for everyone who believes in our democracy -- right, left and straight down the middle.
To put a stop to the silent auction of our elections, we'll need an old-fashioned campaign. Envelopes, petitions, legislative visits and op-eds will have to stuffed, signed, made and written. Speak up (like small business owner David Borris does in this video clip -- starting at 12:45). Write the SEC and demand publicly traded corporations be required to disclose to shareholders all political contributions, direct (to campaigns and candidates) and indirect (to groups like Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). Join the growing movement to reverse the Citizens United decision with a constitutional amendment to declare speech the sole province of living, breathing, sentient human beings. For more on amendment efforts, look here and here.
And this year we have the most direct and efficient means to end secret money in politics. We can elect representatives, including in this cycle senators, representatives and a president, sworn to take every available step to reverse the Citizens United decision. That's a demand we can make across party lines. Ask Democrat, Republican and Independent candidates for all offices to sign a Grover Norquist-like pledge: Disclose, Limit, Reverse. Disclose contributions now, limit the amount any one person or entity can contribute in any future election cycle (to any and all campaigns), and reverse Citizens United.
Of course, the big money will push back, starting with, "You'll never get it done so don't bother trying." Well, I've heard that before. We were assured we'd never get radium removed from our communities. But we did. And we can do this, too.