THE BLOG
11/05/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

The Wool Over Our Eyes

No one likes having the wool pulled over their eyes. Now imagine wealthy CEOs hiring millions of knitters to blanket your entire city with a massive wool sweater, soaked in gasoline. That's what dark money is. It's rich interests that already have millions to burn, but would rather spend that money on polluting our election process and muffling the public's voice. And they are going through ever-greater hoops to hide the source of the money in this election cycle, precisely because people seeing the truth is bad for their cause.

What our founding fathers and mothers set forth in America was an experiment in democracy, one that seemed daring at first independent of a monarch, but soon needed to enfranchise the rest of its citizens. To those that came before us, who sought to build a better life for their children, the right to participate in our democratic process was paramount to what it meant to be free.

So to see how broadly cynical our election process has become, with stealth spending groups unleashing torrents of ads and mailers with deliberately false information, it makes a mockery of a sacred civic participation which our countrymen died for. It is sad that it should come to this, but the reality of today's governance is that spending money in politics offers a greater return on investment than any other form of enterprise -- up to $22,000 percent according to the Journal of Law & Politics, and at the state level that ROI is doubled. You and I might think it unconscionable to turn a room full of people raising their hands to vote into a showroom of masked people shouting at you. But then, corporations have no conscience.

While the Roberts Court continues to look out for the rights of corporations to spend unlimited amounts in elections as if they were entitled citizens, one thing corporations don't have is a conscience -- just a board of directors and shareholders with fiscal quarters and fluctuating stock prices and rival companies of their own. Somewhere along the way the consequences of group decisions perpetrated through bureaucracies have real impact, from plundering public resources to courting corruption. If a person had no conscience, no remorse, and was driven by nothing more than survival, their destructive tendencies would match the behavior of a sociopath. This is the part of personhood that the Roberts Court is committed to recognizing in corporate privilege -- some of humanity's worst traits.

So the idea of a wealthy sociopath that cannot be sated using our local and national elections as a means to manipulate your basic municipal functions -- that should scare the crap out of you. Wouldn't you like to know about that? Outside attack ads have come a long way since the infamous "Willie Horton" ad was run by the RNC in the 1988 presidential race, instead of by the George Bush campaign. The younger Bush in 2004 would squeak by in a narrow election with the help of outside ads so maligning and mendacious, they became a verb in our common parlance : Swift-Boating.

According to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics and The Huffington Post, dark money -- expenditures by groups that refuse to disclose their donors -- the biggest source of this dark money has been the Koch brothers, Charles and David. Their network of groups have spent a combined $52 million in House and Senate races in 2014. Considering their combined net worth tops $100 billion, that amount might seem like chump change to them. Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS just spent $26.2 million of dark money, with a 96 percent success rate, and him spreading falsehoods in an election is like a kid in a candy store.

What America needs, and deserves, are meaningful disclosure laws, because if money is being considered speech, speech comes with responsibility, and there are consequences for those who falsely yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. We need people-powered candidates that can compete with massive out of state anonymous spending. We need local party members to cultivate engagement and future leaders in their community. We need to work with and compel the FEC to respond to the concerns of citizens, instead of being the whipping post for lawsuits aimed at rewriting laws without the legislative branch.

When our country was founded, there were founders who abhorred slavery, but had to accept it as part of the revolt against England. If you were an abolitionist at that time, you likely would not be alive to see slavery outlawed once and for all after the Civil War. But there's no doubt that those who spoke out against a commonly-accepted practice had an impact. Every voice matters, and it will take each voice to bring about the next era of reform.

John Wellington Ennis's new documentary, PAY 2 PLAY: Democracy's High Stakes, spotlights dark money in elections and shows how citizens are taking their democracy back.