A democratic form of Government requires elections, but running for office requires substantial resources. These resources provide candidates with a higher chance of winning an election campaign; as a result, this establishes an unequal balance in the democratic political system. The untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia has led to an intriguing examination into past cases which he presided over. The late Justice Scalia presided over numerous monumental and highly polarising Supreme Court cases. None however, in my humble opinion, is as controversial and as damaging to the American political system as his ruling in support of Citizens United V. FEC along with four other conservative Supreme Court judges. Following Scalia’s death, the Supreme Court is now equally split along ideological and political lines; as such, Scalia’s replacement could possible change the court’s view on climate, race and most importantly campaign financing. There is a dire need for campaign finance reform.
History of Money in American politics
It can’t be denied that money has always played a crucial role in politics - particularly American politics. In the 19th century, politics in America was strictly reserved for aristocrats, ranging from merchants to businessmen. "Politics in Pre-Jacksonian era was a gentleman's pursuit" (1) . This meant that only the rich and wealthy were entitled to a seat in office as campaign funds were from personal wealth. To counter the rule of the elite, an egalitarian political financial system was devised which allowed others who were not from the top strata of society to run with a realistic chance of victory. However, towards the end of the 19th century an excessive growth of outside money found its way into the American political system from wealthy businessmen and corporations, thus establishing the rule of the elite once again - but this time in an intermediary approach. The main problem with outside money is that the small slice of the population which makes political contributions is far more than a representative sample.
The electorate does determine who wins elections, but power is shared with donors who eagerly want their money's worth of pie. As the influence of money in campaigning became more transparent, the Republican President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in after charges were made against him as a result of being the victor in the 1904 primary election. A fine line had to be established, and so it was done via the Tillman Act in 1907 which prohibited direct corporate funding and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925 (2). The Tillman act prohibited corporations and national banks from contributing money to Federal campaigns whereas the Federal Corrupt Practices Act required that federal candidates disclose financial information; however, these two acts had little impact on campaign financing due to the immense loopholes it held. The liberty, in addition to ineffective restrictions by law, therefore gave birth to Political Action Committees or commonly known as PACs. While in the 21st century a huge emphasis is given to business PACs, the concept of a PAC in fact originated with labor unions. PACs are by far the most efficient and effective electoral strategy employed by interest groups to both raise funds as well as infuse it into a particular political party or candidate.
Growth of Super PACs
The ruling of Citizens United V. FEC enabled unlimited political contributions to what is now known as Super PACs. The United States Supreme Court in Citizens United V. FEC held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations. In the SpeechNow.org V. FEC case, SpeechNow.org sued the FEC in 2008 claiming that the $5,000 federal limit represented a violation of the Constitution's First Amendment rights which guarantees freedom of speech. Two years later in 2010, the US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favour of SpeechNow.org. This meant that the FEC could no longer enforce contribution limits on independent groups. When taken together, it's easy to see how these two court cases led to the development of what is know known as Super PACs.
The Citizens United ruling cleared the way for unlimited corporate and union donations whereas the SpeechNow.org decision opened up the pathway for organisations to receive unlimited donations from individuals. In general, Republicans and right leaning organisations favoured the ruling, which they viewed as an extension of free-speech rights. The implementation of Super PACs has lead to an even greater political vortex because its effects in the political arena was far more greater than imagined. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Democrats lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate as a result of conservative Super PACs (3).The Democrats were strongly against both the rulings. During this period, one of the greatest political inequalities could be observed as the resources the Republicans held differed significantly as opposed to their Democrat counterparts as a result of Conservative PACs. In the top ten Senate races with the most Super PAC spending, conservative-leaning groups spent more than liberal-leaning groups in every single race (4).
The cost of an election campaign is rather subjective because there are several fundamental factors contributing to the cost of elections. Personnel costs constitute amongst the largest
element in any election budget; these come under the category of HQ expenditure. Operating expenses take into account the purchase of all supplies and services. Furthermore, variations in ballot length may cause increases or decreases of major proportions in the cost of elections. Another fundamental aspect is the size of the precinct. The larger the precinct, the more manpower would be required and hence the cost will tend to increase.
Americans get their news from three main sources: broadcast media (radio and television), print media (newspapers and magazines), and, increasingly, the Internet. The most adhered and transmitted media outlet during a crisis is the television. Following 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq, the principle source of news amounting to 90% was the television (5). Without the information provided by the media, the public could not possibly know enough to play any role in national politics. For this reason, the media is the most important tool utilised by PACs to sway public opinion as well as the costliest. It is estimated that for the 2016 election cycle, cumulatively candidates will spend a mind-blowing $4.4 billion as “candidates struggle for oxygen,” as expressed by NPR (6).
In campaign expenditure, media expenses constitute the largest percentage, and it is easy to see why. Individuals and interest groups may spend money advocating their point of view about an issue or even reasons on why their candidate deserves to be elected or re-elected. Such issue known as issue advocacy is not regulated or limited by law. The Supreme Court has ruled that as long as the advertisement does not call for the outright defeat of a candidate it is within the boundaries of the law (7). “The choice of the voter is not among men whom he knows but among artificial pictures of men he does not know”; “The making and selling of these pictures is the really costly part of modern campaigning” (8).
Interest groups were incepted by the people and for the people. Over the past decades, interest groups have only been benefitting a small minority of individuals. A country built on the notion of freedom for all has inevitably turned into an oligarchy controlled by the very few and wealthy. Scholarly and public opinion research demonstrates that big-money dominance of campaigns skews American politics because wealthy donors have different life experiences and policy preferences than average earning citizens.
As campaign expenditures rise, parties have been forced to expand their resources significantly by being accountable to unscrupulous interest groups and not the electorate to whom they swore their allegiance to. Interest groups and PACs aren’t inherently detrimental to the functioning of a political system for its’ inception was based on the principle of providing a voice for the voiceless who lacked monetary representation to fight for their cause. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, Super PACs and interest groups have been exploited by large corporations in the name of the common good for their investors. In America, any class that dominates the American economic process is engaged in the political rule. The upper class in society thus enjoys governmental as well as corporate power; the corporate rich are an economic class that rule politically. “It is almost impossible for a poor man to run for public office and a man of moderate means can only do so only if he has the backing of men and forces of great wealth”- U.S. Senator Paul H.Douglas in 1967 Senate testimony. Campaign finance reform is a necessary change to stop the continuous erosion of the American political system which prides itself as being representative of the citizenry. A democracy could very well deteriorate into an oligarchy if its political institutions are not kept at bay by its citizenry.
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(1) Mandle, Jay R. Creating political equality : American elections as a public good / Bethesda [Md.] : Academica Press, c2010.
(2) Sabato, Larry. PAC power : inside the world of political action committees / New York : Norton, c1984 Pg 4.
(3) Blumenthal, Paul. "Democratic Super PACs Trim Conservative Advantage In Congressional Races." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/10/democratic-super-pacs- red_n_2104668.html>.
(4) Smith, Melissa M.,Dark money, super PACs, and the 2012 election / Lanham, Maryland : Lexington Books, p. 1.
(5) Graber, Doris A. Mass media and American politics / Thousand Oaks, California : CQ Press, , p. 127.
(6) Kurtzleben, Danielle. "2016 Campaigns Will Spend $4.4 Billion On TV Ads, But Why?" NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2016. <http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/08/19/432759311/2016-campaign-tv- ad-spending>.
(7) "Special Notices on Political Ads and Solicitations." Brochure. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2016. <http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/notices.shtml>.
(8) Overacker, Louise, Money in elections, New York, The Macmillan company, 1932, p. 347.