In the final three months of 2011, the campaign to re-elect President Obama and the Democratic National Committee raised $68 million -- an impressive sum, all the more impressive because it was donated by 583,000 Americans who gave an average of $55 each.
But earlier this month at a retreat at the exclusive Renaissance Esmeralda resort in California, the conservative billionaire Koch brothers said they would donate a combined $60 million to Super PACs to defeat President Obama. Two billionaire brothers with opinions radically at variance with most of America are poised to cancel out the efforts of half a million American citizens.
To understand this gross perversion of the political process, we don't have to wait until the general election and the avalanche of negative campaign ads against the president. We can look right now at the primary election for the Republican presidential nomination, where we have seen a handful of billionaires and Super PACs outspend all of the Republican candidates and help turn that contest into a circus. The sad reality is the Super PACs have shaped the nominating contest more than the candidates.
That's the way it's been since the Supreme Court's tragic decision in Citizens United, which overturned a century of settled law and opened this floodgate of unlimited campaign spending, drowning out small donors and the individual citizens that most of us learned in school were the cornerstone of our democracy. This Supreme Court ruling was based on the perverse idea that the court's out-of-touch majority somehow felt corporations should enjoy the same constitutional rights as people.
This threatens the integrity of the political process, not just from the appearance of corruption but actually blatantly distorting the process. As companies and sham independent organizations that are actually run by candidates' friends and employees blanket the airwaves with an avalanche of vicious negative advertising, now somehow they're protected under a First Amendment right to free speech which would be beyond the comprehension of our founding fathers.
Mitt Romney may believe that corporations are people, but do the rest of us need a comedian like Stephen Colbert to remind us that only people are people?
There's an outside chance of relief in the form of a century-old Montana law banning corporate corruption in their political landscape, which was passed after an egregious and well-documented abuse in Montana. A case about this law would actually provide the Supreme Court a lifeline to climb down from the precarious and dangerous Constitutional ledge, a ledge that they have not only crawled out onto, but also dragged the American people and the political process onto with their Citizens United decision. There's a chance that the Supreme Court will use this Montana law to re-establish the basic parameters protecting the political process from the corruption of that unregulated corporate money.
But in the meantime, it's important that we advance a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the notion of corporate personhood, explicitly stating that the rights of natural persons may only be afforded to real people, not corporations. And as we work to overturn Citizens United and ban corporate personhood, people should not have to wait to judge whether a candidate is representing the public or representing their benefactors. We should pass the DISCLOSE Act to require political spending by corporations and individuals to be fully transparent. We should be advancing in other efforts in the regulatory process to make sure that shareholders of corporations have the opportunity to at least know and maybe have a say on what the corporations that they are supposed to own are doing on their behalf. We should support HR 1404, the Fair Elections Now Act, to promote public campaign financing to ensure that the public's voice is not drowned out by moneyed special interests.
The Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United was based on fantasies: the fantasy that vast sums of hidden, special-interest money are not inherently corrupting to the political process; the fantasy that corporations should be afforded all the rights of individual citizens; and the fantasy that Super PACs run by individuals who are the closest of allies, friends, and employees of candidates are somehow independent of their campaigns.
What is not a fantasy is what we see right now on the political landscape: the terrifying effect of Super PACs and the flood of money hopelessly distorting campaigns. We should all fight to change it.