Why The 2012 Election Will Ultimately Be A Fight Between Super PACs

It is very easy to demonize either the right or the left.

But fundamentally, we are in a situation where billionaires are funding presidential candidacies and bankrolling special interest campaigns – whether it is the Koch brothers, Foster Friess ,  Sheldon Adelson, Haim Sabin, or George Soros.

Some of these individuals are bankrolling  specific GOP primary candidates – as  Friess is for Santorum and Adelson is for Gingrich.

Others like the Koch brothers give money to conservative and libertarian foundations, lobbyists, and think tanks and have given millions to Tea Party groups, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and Citizens for a Sound Economy– funneling money through 501c3 tax-exempt foundations.

Not too long ago, political campaigns raised funds through individual contributions.  Those who could afford to give did; those who couldn’t didn’t.  That still happens to a certain extent.

But today, fundraising—and thus, campaign spending—has become the nearly exclusive preserve of the elite few. To have any influence on the outcome of a race, you must be part of the “system”—a director of a party committee, the executive director of a special interest PAC or organization, or better yet, a billionaire or multimillionaire.  The phrase “special interests” has long been a catchphrase of government critics, but it doesn’t capture just how concentrated power has become in a few hands in just the last couple of years.

Since the late 1990s, a seismic shift has occurred, in which the candidates themselves are becoming irrelevant as Political Action Committees, party committees, and Independent Expenditure committees have become more dominant, strengthening the power of the political class and the insider and DC elites who work on their own or in concert with party functionaries. Ultimately, this phenomenon has transformed a system with already questionable ethics to one even more distasteful and corrupt,  granting the political elite and the wealthiest individuals unprecedented influence over election outcomes—and compromising the democratic process in ways not imagined even a generation ago.

Super PACs became possible when the Court ruled in Citizens United that limiting independent expenditures by corporations and unions on political campaigns violated their freedom of speech. The ruling opened up the floodgates to a new universe of campaign finance. Put simply, it led directly to the creation of what are now called Super PACs, which allow independent groups to raise and spend political money essentially without contribution limits.

In the 2010 elections, the first since the ruling, Super PACs spent $65.3 million—and that was with very little head start. They’ll spend much, much more in 2012.

Citizens United is perhaps the culmination of developments that have been accelerating over the last decade and a half. Before then, in what now seems a bygone age, candidates for President and Congress relied on individual campaign donations.

Super PACs are now more important than individual candidates.To the political professionals who run elections, the special interests have come to have a predominant, and arguably determinative, influence on our elections.

This is a huge change, and it has only begun to be recognized by the media. Special-interest political money has distorted our democratic system by dominating political communications to the detriment of ordinary citizens, who cannot compete with their resources.

Put another way, if a politician has to choose between speaking to a group of interest-group elites or ordinary voters—it’s no contest.

The imbalance in the campaign-finance system has further isolated voters from politicians and contributed enormously to the deep disenchantment with Congress and Washington more generally.

Distrust of our governing institutions has grown to heights never seen in the history of public polling. This distrust is rooted substantially in a conviction that the system has become a casino, not a true democracy. Special-interest money has also exacerbated polarization, not just between the two parties but also within the broader electorate.

Because most of the money comes from groups with a strong ideological cast—whether labor unions on the left or the Club for Growth on the right—candidates are pulled away from the center and toward extreme positions.