In all the commotion over the healthcare verdict by the Supreme Court, another recent ruling by it has fallen through the cracks of public debate, and that is the court's upholding of its Citizens United ruling, which opened the door to virtually unlimited contributions by corporations to political candidates. Like Alice in Wonderland, we have gone through the looking glass, and it's ugly on the other side.
Over the past few months, Mitt Romney has raised a lot of cash for his presidential run. It should not be surprising given that he had practice raising money from deep pocketed investors for Bain Capital, but I believe his private equity background is relevant for a different reason. Before I explain that, let's look at the broader picture.
There is no doubt that the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, are active fundraisers, but the majority of their efforts are directed at average Americans -- grassroots fundraising that reflects the true spirit of democracy. The Republican party, on the other hand, has focused primarily on corporations and wealthy donors such as the influence-hungry Koch Brothers, to fill their war chest. The implication here should be obvious -- while Democratic money at least represents citizens from all walks of life, Republican money speaks overwhelmingly for the rich. Not only that, but Romney's campaign and the Republican National Committee jointly raised $77 million in May, outpacing the $61 million that Obama and the Democratic National Committee got.
The reason this matters is because campaign contributions not only secure people a voice in their government, but do so proportionally (in other words, more money, more honey). No one is advocating that corporations, banks, or wealthy individuals should be excluded from the political process, but when their donations become so large that everyone else's contributions become irrelevant, then those big donors can exert undue influence over our nation's policies and laws. In a representative government, everyone should be represented, not just the top 1%. That may not happen in practice, but under Mitt Romney, the imbalance would reach a whole new level.
Due to his Wall Street background, most of Romney's big donors are people from the tight-knit business community who are either buddies with him, have worked with him, or at least played golf with him. Most of them are rich bankers or corporate titans themselves. But whatever their status, all of them agree with his lopsidedly pro-business, anti-tax, and anti-regulation views, enjoy the unfettered access that Romney is known to give them, and, most of all, would love to mold our government to serve their personal interests if he becomes president. It's the ultimate old boy network in action, and it's coming soon to a voting booth near you.
Also due to Romney's Wall Street roots (and private equity in particular), he views everything in terms of "investment and returns", which in the case of the campaign means that every big donor deserves a big quid pro quo. It's a simple transaction: if Romney is elected president, he will presumably grant his campaign donors (investors) favors in exchange (returns). These favors, if the history of politics is any lesson, could include new laws, repeal of old laws, licenses, tax breaks, subsidies, criminal pardons -- the list is endless. The United States government is, after all, the largest convenience store in the world. Keep in mind that this type of barter is not illegal and neither is it limited exclusively to Romney, but it does have the potential for serious conflicts of interest. In fact, as the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, Ken Langone, said candidly about the Republican candidate, "I am investing in a person." Indeed he is.
So how can this go on in broad daylight? Because we let it. Romney can play politics as usual because Americans treat it as business as usual. Everyone complains about it but no one does anything to stop it. As an advanced nation, we should take a stand against this system.
If we speak up, hold politicians responsible for their choices, question the true agenda of large contributors to super PACs, write to Congress, write blogs, create a #hashtag on twitter, and in general do whatever we can, we may just make a difference. It was how Barack Obama won the election in 2008 and it is also how Americans can win back their freedom from special interests in 2012.