02/15/2012 11:23 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2012

Lessons Not Learned: Super PACs and a Return to the Nixon Era

Since I last wrote about Stephen Colbert's hysterical satire of super PACs, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) disclosure deadlines have passed, and we now have a somewhat less murky picture of how super PACs are operating. The bottom line is that certain extremely wealthy people have become the golden-egg-laying geese of campaign finance.

And nearly all of the candidates remaining in the Republican presidential primary have their golden geese. Foster Freiss' six-figure donation to Rick Santorum's Red, White and Blue fund earned him a spot on stage next to the former senator's wife and daughter during his victory speech in Missouri. Hedge fund manager John Paulson and investment banker Edward Conard gave one million each to the Restore our Future super PAC that supports Mitt Romney. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson's eight-figure donation kept Newt Gingrich's entire campaign afloat, and many argue that without that check the former Speaker would not have been able to win the South Carolina Republican primary.

This new reality isn't just affecting Republicans. Last week, President Obama's campaign team faced the music of a post-Citizens United election. President Obama's Campaign Manager, Jim Messina, said that Democrats cannot "unilaterally disarm" in the face of Republican super PACs. In order to stay competitive in the "arms race" of campaign finance, President Obama's own super PAC, Priorities USA, scheduled just a dozen meetings with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, business leaders and finance executives. The message is clear: each candidate, including the incumbent President, needs a golden goose to compete.

Presidential elections aren't the only campaigns being affected by Citizens United. Given the lower sums necessary to run successful congressional campaigns, super PAC donations are liable to have an even greater impact on those races.

The FEC's data shows that America is harkening back to campaign finance rules of the Nixon era, when donors such as W. Clement Stone and a few other wealthy men bankrolled nearly a quarter of the cost of then Vice President Nixon's entire presidential campaign. The money left over from the campaign ended up being the seed money for President Nixon's clandestine activities against his political rivals culminating in the Watergate scandal. The reforms to campaign finance law enacted since that low point in American political history have been completely undone by the Citizens United ruling, and now we are right back where we started.

So what does this enormous infusion of cash from a few wealthy donors do to our political system? Just like it was during the Nixon era, Americans have historically low opinions of their government. In a poll released January 19, a majority of voters across party lines agreed with the following statement: "Given what I see in the presidential race, I am fed up with big donors and secret money that controls which candidate we hear about. It undermines democracy." Voters believe that big money controls politics, and when it comes to this new method of campaign finance, they are correct. Of the nearly $200 million in super PAC expenditures, more than half came from fewer than 200 individuals.

A famous political cliché is that money is the mother's milk of politics and it would be impossible to eliminate money from campaigns. Advertising, efforts to get voters to the polls and campaign staff require funding. But what is most disconcerting is when that funding comes from a very small number of individuals and organizations. Small contributions by large numbers of Americans become nearly irrelevant. Candidates no longer need to convince their future constituents to donate what they can to the campaign because they believe in that candidate's leadership. Campaign fundraising will be boiled down to convincing a few extremely successful Americans that their interests will be served if the candidate is elected. And make no mistake about it, political donations are not charity. Expectations of favorable policy positions come along with those multi-figure checks.

Super PACs essentially remove the cap on total donations to campaigns, and as such, the Citizens United decision has a multiplier effect on the influence a small group of the wealthiest Americans have over our political system. It is unfortunate that so few of our political leaders are willing to take a stand against these insidious fundraising practices, all of which directly weakens the resiliency of the American political system.