It wasn't just the Democrats who took a beating on Tuesday. Traditional party institutions seemed passe this election season, while more novel and less accountable agents of influence grabbed headlines. The powerhouse organizing modes for both parties were not just longstanding entities, but also dynamic and very new organizations and networks. (See also, the last election, dominated by Barack Obama's innovative group, Organizing for America.)
With each newfangled set-up, basic questions are now harder to answer: what, exactly, is the organization and what are its relationships to other entities, networks, or sponsors? Who bankrolls it? Whose bidding does it serve? Can one easily establish who is ultimately responsible? These arrangements of power and influence are suffused with ambiguity, which is just as shadow elites, as Janine calls them in her book, like it: ambiguity offers deniability.
The "Non-Profit" Financeers
The January Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case led to a massive wave of creatively incorporated "non-profits" and so-called Super PAC's. The goal was to funnel money to preferred candidates, but you'd never know it from their vague, blank-slate names like "Patriot Majority PAC" and "New Prosperity Foundation". Some of these could accept and spend unlimited donations; others had limits but didn't have to disclose the donors; still others were formed so late in the race that they won't have to disclose until well after the elections, if ever. According to the New York Times, these groups spent $51.6 million in 2006. In 2010: $280 million. More than half of that was from secret donors, the Times reports, "most of which has benefited Republicans." These modes of operating are straight from the shadow elite playbook: titles and names are empty or misleading, and it's often difficult to establish who or what is sponsoring an effort.
American Crossroads - The "Shadow RNC"
Perhaps the biggest and most important of these groups: Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie's American Crossroads and its sister organization Crossroads GPS, which amplified its power, the Times reported today, by "coordinating with each other and several more [groups]." Crossroads pushed tens of millions to Republican candidates, earning it the nickname the "Shadow RNC". For in the shadow elite era, hierarchies and traditional authorities have given way to inside networks of information and access. And by setting themselves up outside the party, groups like Crossroads provide cover for the players within the GOP. Note that the chairman of the actual RNC, Michael Steele, was able to easily deflect responsibility when asked recently on Meet the Press about secret special interest money sloshing through GOP campaign coffers: "...how would, how would I, how, how would I know that? I don't run those organizations.."
The NRCC's New "Insurgent's Perspective"
The Wall Street Journal credits the GOP's success in part to a fundamental shift in the workings of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Instead of raising money primarily for incumbent Republicans, leaders decided at a retreat in early 2009 to take an "insurgent's perspective" and throw energy and dollars at finding new blood to threaten longtime Democratic incumbents, led by a leadership team dubbed the "Young Guns" . The Journal notes that one of the Young Guns, House GOP Whip Eric Cantor, had other leaders sign a bottle of wine at that retreat, not to be uncorked until they retook the House. We're guessing it's been uncorked now.
DeMint's "Revolutionary" Model Establishment Republicans certainly proved they could "innovate" with campaign finance strategems, and so did their anti-establishment challengers in the Tea Party, especially Senator Jim DeMint who on Tuesday solidified his role as a Tea Party rainmaker. As the Times put it, Sen. DeMint has built an "alternate power center in Washington" and plays, in the words of Politico's Jonathan Allen, "an inside-outside game designed to bolster a cluster of Senate conservatives who make trouble for both Democratic and Republican leaders." The way DeMint used his Senate Conservatives Fund to back Tea Party candidates, Allen explains, had "a revolutionary feel to it:"
What sets him apart is that he's created a hybrid of traditional leadership PACs -- which are designed to advance a single member's political interests by donating little chunks of money to lots of grateful candidates -- and ideology-based PACs, which exist to advance an issue or set of issues...By applying the most effective tactics of interest-group PACs to a leadership PAC, DeMint is using his brand to deliver indirect assistance to the campaigns of conservative candidates he believes would be brothers in arms if elected to the Senate.
Indeed, in the shadow elite era, formal organizations have given way to informal centers of authority and charismatic influencers.
Tea Party Leadership: Everyone & No One
The decentralized, leaderless, amorphous appearance of the Tea Party allows players to have it both ways: they can connect themselves to the movement when it serves their interests, and they can conveniently distance themselves whenever they want by arguing that the other guy's Tea Party is not really "his" Tea Party. Consider how Glenn Beck headlined a rally of tens of thousands of Tea Party activists in August and yet insisted he is not a Tea Party leader and that the Tea Party should have no leader. Beck claims that "We, the People" are the real leaders. But as a savvy propagandist he surely knows the advantages of having everyone and no one in charge. Influencers in the shadow elite mold thrive on ambiguous appearance, loyalties, and borders of practically all kinds.
Fox News has evolved into something even more potent than just a media outlet with a strong, obvious ideological slant. It now has on its roster not just Karl Rove, who actually encouraged viewers donate to Crossroads while on the air, but also four likely but undeclared GOP presidential contenders. This gives these players not only a receptive audience but also a convenient excuse for avoiding other news outlets until the last possible minute. Frank Rich in the New York Times on Sunday also suggested that Fox may be intentionally overstating the Tea Party's influence as a cover for Rove and establishment Republicans to maintain the status quo. (Linda, a former TV news producer, thinks cable news outlets - always in search of fireworks, strong opinion, and new narratives - would need little encouragement to focus on the Tea Party.)
Surely the most striking development of these midterms was the flood of secret cash funnelling through shadow organizations born of the Citizens United decision. And there's little sign the trend will change. Crossroads plans to continue targeting Democrats, its chairman saying, "We've planted the flag for permanence, and we believe that we will play a major role for 2012." Will Democrats play catch-up? Top Obama advisor David Axelrod wouldn't say in an email exchange with New York Times' Jim Rutenberg, but did say this:
[GOP special interests] have driven a huge truck filled with undisclosed cash through a legal loophole to try and buy this election....is it any surprise that this same, stealthy crowd will try to move on to the White House next?
Democrats intent on fighting back insist the party needs to get its own "huge truck." If that happens, and both parties decide to play fast and loose with the campaign finance system, the biggest loser in 2012 won't be just a candidate or a certain party, but the democratic ideals of transparency and accountability.