Democracy for Sale

Democracy for Sale

This election season, we are witnessing an assault on democracy by multinational corporations that, freed by the Citizens United ruling, are out to get the best government money can buy.


On October 6, amid the tidal wave of corporate cash flooding the 2010 campaigns—which could attach a $5 billion price tag to the most expensive midterm election in history—Bill Moyers told Common Cause that money in politics is "the dagger directed at the heart of democracy." He had just warned that "the activist reactionary majority on the Supreme Court…has opened the floodgates for oligarchs and plutocrats to secretly buy our elections and consolidate their hold on the corporate state."

What is happening this fall is not just about parties and candidates or television attack ads or a media fantasy of "the grassroots Tea Party movement." We are witnessing an assault on democracy by multinational corporations that, freed by the Citizens United ruling, are out to get the best government money can buy. Who’s buying? Billionaire businessmen with a stake in energy, finance and telecommunications policy debates—like Trevor Rees-Jones, Robert Rowling and Jerry Perenchio—are writing checks for as much as $1 million each to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads project. What’s more, Crossroads GPS, an allied group that’s pouring tens of millions into Congressional races, is organized under tax laws that allow Rove to hide the names of donors. But we do know the targets: by early October, the group had spent $14 million on ads attacking senators Barbara Boxer in California and Patty Murray in Washington, as well as a handful of other Democrats in races that could decide which party controls the Senate.

The Crossroads campaign is part of a broader push from corporations to buy not just Congress but a guarantee that there will be fewer challenges to corporate abuses, bankster speculation and free-trade policies that allow multinational corporations to shutter American factories while exploiting the world’s poorest workers.

Fronting this corporate campaigning is the US Chamber of Commerce, which, according to the Center for American Progress, collects and deposits money from US-based multinationals and groups from India and Bahrain that ends up "in the same 501(c)(6) account the Chamber is using to run an unprecedented $75 million attack campaign, mostly against Democrats." The Chamber joins Crossroads and other Republican-friendly groups in refusing to reveal its sources of funding.

Reformers are under attack from Rove’s apparatchiks for demanding enactment of the DISCLOSE Act, which Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer says "would carry forward a forty-year-old principle of campaign finance laws that campaign contributions and expenditures should be disclosed." That’s a start, but transparency is not enough. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a target of the Chamber’s attack ads, is right when he says the central issue is corporate power. Democrats should pick up on Feingold’s theme, in this campaign and in the next Congress. They must push responses ranging from public funding of campaigns to amending the Constitution so that it guarantees that legislatures can regulate corporate campaigning. More is at stake than House and Senate seats. "Democracy in America has been a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck," warns Moyers. If the dagger of corporate money pierces the heart of democracy this year, we may not have the strength to pull it out afterward. The 2010 election is a watershed for America. It is money versus democracy. We dare not let the money win.

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