Reason magazine's Jacob Sullum sees no cause for concern in the tidal wave of political spending by wealthy donors unleashed by the Supreme Court. The super PACs have made things more competitive, he assures us, and the "fear" of critics like myself that the wealthy will "dominate the discourse and dictate electoral outcomes" simply hasn't come to pass.
You might view this statement as incredible given recent history and odd given that the source is "Reason" magazine, where one would expect facts as well as assertions. What are the facts? As of May 30, super PACs affiliated with a select number of wealthy donors have spent nearly $90 million on ads designed to influence the outcome of the Republican presidential primary. That counts as dominating the discourse in my book -- drowning out the candidates, party groups, PACs and other donors large and small, whom Sullum conveniently disparages as "insiders." And how does that $90 million break out? The super PACs affiliated with wealthy supporters of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman spent less than $40 million dollars combined. The Restore Our Future PAC, which backed Mitt Romney, spent $46.5 million.
It's true that the most popular candidate often raises the most money. But Romney wasn't the most popular candidate, not by a long shot. The Republican base wasn't just lukewarm -- they recoiled at Romney, and even his extreme swing to the right didn't help. His main competitors knew it, and they were promising to take this fight all the way to Tampa. Enter Restore Our Future PAC. In state after state, this super PAC, affiliated with Romney's wealthy supporters, came to the rescue, carpet bombing the leading contender with negative ads in order to boost Romney's showing.
Romney is still trying to fix his problems with a base even further right; the latest effort involved a fundraiser headlined by Donald Trump, who proceeded to stoke the wholly discredited "birther" conspiracy theory. But he locked up the nomination because of the influence exerted by a handful of wealthy supporters through their super PAC. The outcome of the 2012 Republican presidential primary was decided by the group that spent the most money.
Super PACs, special interests and wealthy donors have rushed to tee up the same strategy for the fall. On the same day Sullum's column was published, an alliance of conservative groups announced a plan to spend $1 billion in an attempt to dictate the outcome of the general election. Prominent members of the group include the Koch brothers -- who also happen to be major donors to the foundation that funds Reason magazine, a fact Mr. Sullum did not disclose in his fortuitously timed column. This alliance of wealthy conservatives and special interests isn't spending a billion dollars to make the presidential election more competitive, or to make sure "outsiders" find their voice. These are wealthy business people. It would be foolish to believe that they are pouring money into an election without any expectation that there will be a return on their investment. They believe the influence they can buy in the form of an onslaught of negative advertising will allow them to pick the winner. Do you think there's no risk of corruption in an electoral process where powerful interests dominate the playing field on behalf of their favored candidates, or where they can threaten to do so if candidates don't get in line? If so, Mr. Sullum may also have some oceanfront property in Kansas to sell you.
Campaign finance laws were put in place to reduce corruption, the risk of corruption, and the appearance of corruption, and for decades those laws were upheld by the Supreme Court. No matter how much dust one tries to throw into the eyes of people concerned about the integrity of our elections, the fact remains: the undue influence of wealthy donors and interest groups is real, and it threatens corruption on a scale not seen in decades. It also threatens to overwhelm the diversity of voices on which democratic dialogue depends. We need to reform our campaign finance system to empower small donors and restore integrity to our elections. Repairing the damage to campaign finance laws wrought by the Roberts Court's departure from decades of precedent amounts to a national emergency.