Cash Register Politics Destroys Democracy

In light of history repeating itself so completely, one must ask where did all these millions of dollars go if, 12 years later, the very same mistakes, blunders and oversights are being made?
12/08/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

"The mid-term elections are over. After spending hundreds of millions of business dollars, the Republicans now control the Senate and hold on to the House of Representatives. It is amazing that the Democrats did not do worse." If those sentences ring familiar, it's because I wrote them in 2002 in response to that year's midterm elections, although they could easily apply today.

Now several weeks removed from the 2014 elections, the news cycle has moved on to other matters, but the fallout remains to affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. Unless Americans start to get serious about their elections, we may as well repeat the same sentiments in another 12 years with an even greater price tag attached.

After spending even more hundreds of millions of campaign dollars, the craven, corporatist Republicans once again control Congress. Of course, the Democrats dialed for many of the same commercial dollars and spent their own hundreds of millions in campaign advertising, all while spectacularly failing to make a better case about the direction of our country to the voters than the worst Republican Party in history.

Note another 2002 reaction of mine: "...the Democrats were not highlighting the desperate need for raising the federal minimum wage (now about a third less in purchasing power than it was in 1968!)" Once again, 12 years later in 2014, Democrats dropped the ball on an issue that polls show 80 percent of Americans agree upon. I also wrote about the Democrats failing to go after Republicans on consumer protection issues like food safety and clean air and water, which we all need regardless of political alignment.

In light of history repeating itself so completely, one must ask where did all these millions of dollars go if, 12 years later, the very same mistakes, blunders and oversights are being made?

The answer is: huge media buys, endless mailings both paper and electronic, and incessant telephone calls, many recorded, to registered voters. One firm estimated that $2.6 billion was spent just on TV advertising in the 2014 midterms. Very few, if any, of these political ads are informative to voters -- in fact, most people find them enormously irritating, specifically in swing states where they run constant until Election Day. Despite the overload of political noise on the airwaves, the issues that would really strike a difference are disturbingly ignored.

Just think about all the good those millions could have done were they focused on public needs such as repairing roads and infrastructure, or easing student loan burdens, or refurbishing water systems, schools and libraries -- it is enough to get anyone with a deep interest in the preservation and improvement of their own local community riled up. The amount of money and resources poured into these showy and substance-lacking elections is appalling.

And where is all this money coming from? See author Darrell West's recent book Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust (Brookings Institution Press, 2014) which takes a fascinating look at the politically-active super-rich and how they have, in so many ways, seized enormous amounts of influence with the "wealthification" of politics in our country (and around the world.)

It raises the question: How much should an individual vote cost? How much is too much? According to a recent Brookings report the 2014 Alaska Senate race cost $120.59 per voter. The next highest per voter expenditure is New Hampshire, at $50 per voter -- despite being considerably less, it's still an extraordinary amount spent for a single vote. (Iowa is next at $39.11, followed by Colorado at $27.40. See the rest of the top ten at the link above)

Another stunning example from Brookings is the North Carolina Senate race. This contest between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis reportedly cost $111,000,000. It's being called the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history (not accounting for inflation.) More than 100,000 ads were run in that single state. Similarly, $97,100,000 was spent in Colorado, $88,000,000 in Iowa and so on.

Astronomical election spending should come as no surprise to avid Congress watchers. In post-Citizens United and McCutcheon Supreme Court decisions America, politicians from both major parties go into their meetings talking about raising money and walk out talking about raising money. Where governance was once a matter of more importance to those we sent to represent us in Congress, campaign cash -- and how to accumulate truckloads of it -- has instead become the primary concern to candidates.

If there was any doubt, newly-minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once called the signing of the McCain-Feingold bill which imposed some limits on corporate campaign spending "the worst day of his political life." On the Democratic side, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) responded to my call for Nancy Pelosi to step down as House minority leader by arguing that she "personally raised over $100 million for the [House Democratic] caucus. There's no one else on Earth who could do that," as if this was the principle measure of her leadership.

And it's only going to get worse -- the SuperPACs are already gearing up for 2016. Even Warren Buffett, who has been quite critical of SuperPACS, recently gave the maximum donation allowed to a "Ready for Hillary" group.

Here's some more observations from 2002 to once again consider, still relevant today:

"Lessons for the future? Don't give your major political opponents a free ride between and before elections. Challenge the corporate takeover of elections, including the sudden surge of political television advertising paid directly by industries like the big price-gouging drug companies. And get down to the neighborhood level with visible stands for the people.

Otherwise the Democrats will become even better at electing very bad Republicans."

If you are tired of rinse-and-repeat electoral politics and are interested in taking action, consider signing Public Citizen's petition for a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC rulings. You will be emailed regular updates on the campaign and other ways to fight back against the overflow of money in politics.

First the petitions, then the mass, peaceful street protests.

More information on Public Citizen's work on money in politics is available here.