Although I've contributed hundreds of dollars at a pop to political candidates in the past, I'm not directly contributing any money to congressional candidates this year. The reason: The onslaught of hundreds of millions of dollars in Super PAC money, and even worse, "dark" money from so-called non-profits, unleashed by the Supreme Court through Citizens United and its progeny leads me to conclude that the hundreds of dollars I can afford to contribute are more or less worthless and meaningless.
According to Lawrence Lessig, 132 Americans contributed 60 percent of Super PAC money. If, as the Supreme Court majority believes, this money is constitutionally protected "speech," how is my few hundred (or even few thousand) dollars in contributions supposed to compete? I may as well just close my wallet, because my contributions are too small to matter.
Think of it this way. Let's say I've written some nice songs and want to stand in the park with an acoustic guitar singing them to whomever will listen. Suddenly a big rig with the logo of say Coke (or Koch) plastered on the side pulls up next to me, a dozen paid grips unload a huge portable stage and a 60,000 watts sound system, and a pop group paid for and sponsored by Coke (or Koch) starts to perform. I could keep singing and strumming my guitar, if I liked, but I'd be completely drowned out and no one would hear me. If I'm not an idiot, I'd just pack up and go home. My freedom of expression would have effectively been suppressed, even though no cop ordered me to leave.
Which is pretty much what Citizens United has done to my contributing to political campaigns. With my voice drowned out by the Super PACs and secret non-profits of a handful of millionaires, billionaires, and corporations, I'm packing up and stopping contributing to individual political candidates or parties.
The Supreme Court didn't directly tell me I'm not allowed to contribute to political candidates. Instead, they've just made it fairly meaningless for me to bother. Thank you, Justice Kennedy.
Keep in mind that statistically, I'm a relatively large donor. In the past, my personal contributions to candidates have been in the hundreds of dollars and in presidential years my total political contributions have totaled over $1,000. Only 0.19 percent of the US population contributes at least $200 an election cycle to federal candidates, political parties and PACS. I've been in that rarified elite.
Yet not counting Dark Money, 65.9 percent of federal campaign contributions come from this 0.19% of the population. Moreover, only 0.04 percent of the population contributes at least $2,600 per election cycle. And remember the statistic above -- a mere 132 Americans contributed 60 percent of Super PAC money.
But it gets worse: The figures above only reflect publicly reported contributions. As the New York Times recently reported, more than half of congressional election advertising -- 55 percent -- is aired by secret money groups who don't even have to disclose their contributors. Both Democrats and Republicans rely heavily on Super PACs, but Republicans rely more heavily on dark money. According to the Times, 80 percent of pro-Republican general election advertising is paid for with secret money from groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, Freedom Partners (tied closely to the Koch Brothers) and Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove. Corporations wanting to shield their contributions from shareholder or consumers who might object have been freed by the Supreme Court to use these secret money vehicles.
The result is a government so reliant on a handful of donors -- not on the people -- that its policies almost always favor the wealthy over the middle class and the poor. As Princeton professor Martin Gilens research has shown, "The poor never have as much influence as the middle class, and the middle class never has as much influence as the affluent." He further notes, if government policy wasn't so dominated by the wealthy, "[w]e would have a higher minimum wage, more generous unemployment benefits, stricter corporate regulation (on the oil and gas industry in particular), and a more progressive tax regime."
So, what's a middle-class donor like myself supposed to do in the face of this avalanche of billions of dollars in big money contributions to our politicians, much of it secret, unleashed by the Supreme Court? In my case, it's led me to stop making any contributions to individual candidates or political parties.
This year all of my contributions -- in the high three figures -- have gone to MAYDAY PAC, the crowd-funded Super PAC formed by campaign finance reform leader Lawrence Lessig whose goal is to end all Super PACs, including itself, and transform our large donor-dominated political system to one dominated by small donors and ordinary citizens. It might be a herculean task -- as Larry Lessig says, "embrace the irony" -- but it's the only chance we have to save our Republic and its promise of government of, by and for the people, from an oligopoly of, by and for billionaires and mega-corporations, and build a government that might actually do something about our increasingly broken economic and political system.