Do they take us for fools?
American Action Network. Patriot Majority U.S.A. American Future Fund. Americans for Responsible Leadership. Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
Those are the names of top electioneering nonprofit organizations -- the key Dark Money conduits into our elections.
These innocuous names are virtually impossible to distinguish. By any reasonable standard, the groups exist for the purpose of influencing elections. They are among the leading purveyors of the attack ads blanketing TV airwaves during ever-expanding election seasons.
Unfortunately, whether or not we are fooled by the interchangeable names of these groups, they are able to make suckers of us all.
First, they are able to manipulate flawed IRS and Federal Election Commission rules to characterize themselves as social welfare organizations purportedly spending less than half their budgets on electioneering. If the rules were properly enforced, they would have to register as political committees, not sham social welfare groups.
Second, because they are not registered as political committees, these groups are able to conceal their donors -- hence the Dark Money appellation. There's lots of evidence that knowing the funders of an ad helps voters interpret and contextualize what they are seeing and hearing. That's impossible to do with Dark Money groups, however.
Third, both because they are channeling secret money and because they have no independent purpose except to influence elections and therefore don't care about their image, these groups spend overwhelmingly on negative, attack ads. Everyone hates attack ads, but they work: they tarnish their targets, force targets on the defensive, degrade debate and deter voter turnout. "The tactic meets with media and pundit disapproval and spawns accusations of negativity," explains Mark Penn, former political consultant to President Bill Clinton and others, "but the reality is that a clever negative ad can be devastatingly effective."
The amount of Dark Money -- election-related funds whose source remains secret -- has skyrocketed since the U.S. Supreme Court's disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision, rising from a miniscule $5.2 million in 2006 to $173 million in 2014 (or more than $300 million with a less-stringent definition). You can be sure that 2016 will smash all previous records.
Remember Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow? That was the mock, reality TV Super PAC that Stephen Colbert set up as host of Comedy Central's Colbert Report. It was registered as an actual Super PAC. The prank was hysterically funny, but in truth, the prank was less outlandish than reality. The name hardly stood as parody compared to the big-spending organizations; and unlike the social welfare organizations, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow was required to disclose its donors.
The good news is, we don't have to be suckers. There are easy cures to fix the Dark Money problem. Foremost among them would be to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would require disclosure of all secret spending. There are other partial ways to solve the problem: the Securities and Exchange Commission should require companies to disclose their political spending; the IRS should follow the law and stop social welfare groups from engaging in rampant electioneering; the nonfunctioning Federal Election Commission could take a variety of steps to end or reduce secret spending; and President Obama could with the stroke of a pen - not needing agreement from Congress or even any agency chief -- sign an executive order requiring at least government contractors to disclose their political spending (an act that would also reduce contractor corruption).
But this is apparent: We're going to have a tough time winning any of these modest reforms without a stronger movement. And we're certainly not going to solve the bigger problems of political corruption and inequality -- continued degradation of our democracy and an emergent oligarchy -- without a stronger democracy movement.
Which is why our April 16-18 Democracy Awakening mobilization is so crucial. Following a week of direct action carried out under the banner of Democracy Spring, thousands of Americans will descend on Washington, D.C. for three days of action: teach-ins and other activities on Saturday, April 16; a major march and rally at the U.S. Capitol on Sunday, April 17; and nonviolent civil disobedience, along with citizen lobbying, on Monday, April 18.
The hostile takeover of our democracy by giant corporations and the super-rich is no April Fools' prank. If we don't want to be the suckers on the wrong end of a rigged political and economic system, we have to build a powerful social movement. We start a new phase with the April mobilization.