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Conventions: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

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Look behind the pomp and circumstance of the conventions and you'll quickly discover the naked auctioning of our democracy. A marathon of invitation-only, lavish events sponsored by the one percent. Politicians and super-lobbyists grinning and gripping each other along with bottomless booze, jumbo shrimp, and billions of dollars in campaign, Super PAC and secret contributions. Unthinkable largess bestowed upon Republicans and Democrats alike in exchange for policies that are screwing just about everyone who doesn't happen to have a well-heeled lobbyist or Super PAC.

As I watch public interest efforts -- from taxation to government waste; from environment to health care reform -- I'm stunned that every single person working on these and so many other issues are not working exclusively on combatting the undue influence of money in politics. Because it's all about the money.

Why do guys like Mitt Romney still pay a lower tax rate than you while the Pew Research Center reported last week: "America's middle class has endured its worst decade in modern history." Just look at the big money orgy happening in Tampa; the real-time subversion of the American middle class in favor of moneyed interests.

Why has President Obama's promise of "change" turned into more of the same, as he caves to Wall Street, Big Oil, phone & cable, and nearly every other special interest? The answer will be in full view in the same kind of show in Charlotte.

Super PACs have become the much-discussed villain of the 2012 presidential race. Once derided and now embraced by both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, they are raising and spending vast sums of money. And it's mostly for negative attack ads. According to a Wesleyan report, the percentage of negative ads have skyrocketed to 70 percent, compared to just 9 percent at this point in the (pre-Citizens United) 2008 election.

Writer Alan Smith points out that this trend towards negative political messages portends something more dangerous: "a calculated attempt to further erode Americans' sense of government as a positive actor and, with that, the chance for a publicly held good in our society. While it is true that our relationship with government is a complex and evolving one, it must not be defined by such a black-and-white campaign against government in all forms."

Ultra-secretive "501(c)(4)" tax-exempt organizations -- that both write checks to PACs and directly buy mostly negative political ads -- are now outpacing Super PACs by huge margins. Two weeks ago, Pro Publica reported that just two of these organizations, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and Charles and David Koch's Americans For Prosperity have outspent all Super PACs combined. And while Citizens United is most often blamed for the spending explosion, Pro Publica explains that the other major reason is inaction and dysfunction at the Federal Elections Commission and the Internal Revenue Service.

The melee of money is compounded by tepid horserace television journalism that consistently underreports on this and so many other vital issues. News brought to you by the same companies that constitute the lobbying elite in Washington. Conglomerates like Newscorp, Comcast, Viacom and Disney -- owners of Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC -- ply politicians with largesse in exchange for decisions worth billions to their bottom line. Their journalistic failure matters because the majority of Americans get their news from TV while their confidence in television news simultaneously plummets.

Political corruption has devolved into the worst kind of Groundhog Day. Super PACs are not legally allowed to coordinate with candidates, but each PAC is overtly aligned with a particular candidate or party, making a mockery of the absurd opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court: that unlimited contributions to Super PACs don't constitute "corruption or the appearance of corruption" as long as they don't coordinate with candidates. Their judgment is so grossly out of touch with the reality of what's actually happening, that it's not even worthy of comment here.

The majority of the high court's justices are choosing cronyism over history, and greed over integrity. Earlier this year, the state of Montana lost a brave challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court when the state's highest court tried to protect its century-long limits against corporations buying politicians. The Montana law was passed in 1912 when three copper kings were battling each other and had amassed so much money and power that the state's politicians were overtly labeled as being owned by one tycoon or another. One Copper King even determined where the state's capital would be located. Montana politics had literally become an auction, and the state government responded rationally with common sense limits on political contributions.

That common sense has been trumped by corruption at the highest court and in Congress. Modern America is a Wild West political system strikingly similar to that of 100 years ago. Only today, it's a few hundred mega-donors bankrolling the Super PACs, secret 501(c)(4)s, candidates and party contributions, and the stakes are exponentially higher.

As our frustration with the corrupt status quo reaches a tipping point, we have two choices: identify and work towards an actual solution, or throw our hands up and declare change impossible. While a rational response, the problem with giving up is that it would ultimately require that we give up on future generations and the nation itself. Global instability and the sheer gravity of today's most pressing issues do not allow the gridlock, greed and dysfunction that define money in politics corruption.

We have no choice but to outsmart the plutocrats and mobilize around a winnable reform strategy. So where to start? Lets start with a few key facts:
  1. The problem of money in politics isn't as simple as Super PACs and the Supreme Court's ill-advised Citizens United decision. Money in American politics is a deeply embedded cancer at both the national and local levels that predates the decision. Any solution must be comprehensive enough to stop the flood of corrupt money in its many forms.
  1. The problem is so widespread and acute that we must craft comprehensive, not piecemeal legislation that:
  • Shines a light on dark money groups and their secret donors.
  • Outlaws members of Congress from fundraising from those they regulate.
  • Closes the revolving door between Congress and K Street -- the one that makes politicians beholden to their future employers instead of us.
  • Fosters small donor contributions through citizen-funded elections. (If we shut down corrupting money, we need to enable clean money.)
  • Stops Super PACs and dark money groups from coordinating with campaigns.
  • Expands the definition of lobbying to include all types of influence peddlers.
  1. Reform will not be championed by most elected representatives. We the people must demand reform. We must lead them, and empower the handful of politicians who have the courage to lead. We must enlist millions of our friends and colleagues in support of a unified grassroots campaign, and actively unseat opponents of reform. We must end the auction of our republic with the same zeal of the great social movements that have come before.
  1. We must take advantage of the fact that grassroots conservatives AND liberals want to fix this problem.

This all adds up to a $6 billion challenge. That's roughly how much moneyed interests will pump into this year's election. Combating that kind of money will require the same kind of vision and courage as the Montana State Supreme Court when it directly challenged the highest court in the country. It will take transformative legislation that goes far beyond the current range of debate in Washington. It will take a movement like none we've seen on this issue; a willingness to serve country like never before; to join millions of other Americans who are waking up to the crisis that imperils our democracy and our future. In short, it will take the same brand of commitment, sweat and sacrifice that drove the founding of our nation.

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If we lose this issue, ordinary Americans will continue to get ripped off, the planet will continue to pollute beyond repair, the economy will continue to falter, politicians will continue to fail us, and we will be unable to turn around this listing ship called America. It's that simple. I for one am not willing to jump overboard. And neither should you be.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the corrupting influence of money on our politics August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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