The notion behind our democracy was that if people could vote, we’d have representatives who were doing what the majority of the people wanted them to do. If someone wasn’t doing that, then the answer was for the majority of people to vote them out of office and install someone more to their liking. Citizens United (and, no, I haven’t forgotten that the suit against campaign finance laws was originally titled Citizens United Not Timid — an anti-Hillary group) changed that.
Because the US doesn’t fund election campaigns, politicians have to raise money to afford ads, staff, mailers, canvassers, etc. And political action committees (PACs) and rich people such as the Koch brothers can provide more of that money in one fell swoop than a politician can raise in months of appeals to small donors (you and me). PACs and other “dark money” groups (groups that don’t have to reveal where they got their money) can then demand whatever favors they want — tax cuts, cuts to the regulatory protections to our air, water, food, consumer services, etc. These groups can also stop politicians from doing things the groups don’t like. “Gee, if you don’t vote the way we want, we’ll not only not fund (aka bribe) you, we’ll fund a primary challenger to you in your next election. We’ll run negative attack ads against you. That’s scary to incumbents because, first, the challenger might win and, second, even if the incumbent wins, they’ll have had to spend money, effort, political capital, etc. before the actual election even starts. And, so, without ever actually spending a dime, these groups can threaten their way to whatever goodies they want.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse writes about this in his excellent book, Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy.
Citizens United did not add to America’s policy debate; it gave big special interests a weapon to suppress debate, with political threats and bullying they did not have the power to use before. . . . .
Before [Citizens United] a corporate CEO could threaten to host a fund-raiser for your opponent, he could put his support for your opponent in the employee newsletter, or he could send your opponent a $10,000 PAC check, and that was about it. And he’d have to do it all publicly. It was a crime, for instance, for the CEO to launder a donation through an employee, friend, or family member to boost his giving clout or hide his role. Now, the corporate CEO (or more likely his political operatives, as he probably doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty with the new “wet work” of politics) simply has to approve a dollar number and unleash the new apparatus. Since corporations regularly seek benefits in Washington worth many billions of dollars for their industry, the natural limit on the dollar amount number [that] it makes sense for the CEO to unleash is very high.
The result has been representatives who care far less about what their constituents want than about what the big money donors want — and don’t want.
Susan Collins is a good example. Her constituents don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. For years, Senator Collins has played a stupid game in which she gets the SCOTUS nominee to make vague promises about respecting precedent, she votes for them, they go to the Court and overturn precedent and she acts surprised. It’s pretty clear that she’s made a commitment to approve Judge Kavanaugh despite the fact that everyone knows he plans to overturn Roe v. Wade and then go for birth control and the right to privacy. (It’s likely her big money donors want Judge Kavanaugh more for his pro-corporate stance than for his abortion aversion, but it hardly matters. The result is the same; they call the tune and Senator Collins dances.)
Senator Collins understands how the game works; she not only receives a ton of money from big donors who want favors from her, she’s married to a wealthy lobbyist CEO . A lobbyist is a person who buys votes from representatives on behalf of large corporations, other countries, rich people.
Now, a group of citizens have gotten together online and — in a GoFundMe-type action — have raised money for a potential challenger to Senator Collins if she votes to approve Judge Kavanaugh. She’s outraged and the media is playing along with her. She gave an interview to a right-wing media outlet and complained that the money was a bribe. NBC reported on it, calling the challenge questionable fundraising.
We’ve come full circle. When citizens try to elect people who actually represent them, that’s “bribery” and it’s “questionable,” but when huge corporations and big lobbyists buy representatives with money and financial threats, that’s totally OK.
There’s a short-term solution to this and a longer-term solution. The short-term is to continue to raise money and to use it to vote out politicians who ignore the will of the majority of their constituents. Longer-term, we need to undo Citizens United. Oh, and shame on Senator Collins. People of Maine: do better.
Picture found here.