Special interests dominate Washington and undermine our democracy.



“We’ve found through our experience that timid supplications for justice will not solve the problem,” declared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 as he announced the civil rights movement’s pivot toward the economic justice message of the Poor People’s Campaign. “We’ve got to massively confront the power structure.”

With those words, King spoke a language every bit as American as his “I Have a Dream” message of four years earlier. There are times for optimism and hope, and there are times for acknowledgment of an overwhelming challenge and the radical demand that it be addressed. Often they merge, and in these moments, great movements fundamentally redirect the nation. Tom Paine knew that. So did Frederick Douglass, and Jane Addams, and A. Philip Randolph. There is a rich American tradition of recognizing that some crises cannot be answered by tinkering at the edges of the problem. At such times, the people have responded with a boldness that ushered in new political parties or a New Deal, new understandings of the rights of citizens and the responsibilities of governments. And they have amended the Constitution, not once or twice but twenty-seven times.

After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, we began what would become a three-year survey of the state of American democracy, using the 2010 and 2012 election cycles as touchstones but focusing on a range of electoral, governmental and journalistic measures of democratic decay. The experience forced us to recognize the futility of timid supplications in pursuit of reforming politics and the media. We did this not as critics of the reform impulse, but as co-founders of a media reform organization who have maintained a long-term faith in the power of organizing and the potential of electoral politics to achieve consequential change. We retain that faith, along with a deep understanding of the value of continual prodding at the local, state and national levels. But we concluded that mild reforms are no longer sufficient to address a political crisis as far-reaching as any the nation has known.

The United States has experienced fundamental changes that are dramatically detrimental to democracy. Voters’ ability to define political discourse has been so diminished that even decisive election results like Barack Obama’s in 2012 have little impact. That’s because powerful interests—freed to, in effect, buy elections, unhindered by downsized and diffused media that must rely on revenue from campaign ads—now set the rules of engagement. Those interests so dominate politics that the squabbling of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, is a sideshow to the great theater of plutocracy and plunder. This is not democracy. This is dollarocracy.

Tens of millions of Americans recognize the crisis. Congress is held in ridiculously low esteem. Almost two-thirds of the public say their government is controlled by a handful of powerful interests. At the same time, confidence in the media as a check on abuses of power is collapsing almost as quickly as the circulation figures of daily newspapers.

Yet when the evidence of the decay of democracy is pieced together, as it is in our new book Dollarocracy, the picture is even more troubling than most observers and activists imagine. To wit:

§ The 2012 elections were the most expensive in the Republic’s history, with spending of roughly $10 billion. They did not cost $6 billion, as was broadly reported last November. That figure was based on a sound study of federal election spending, but it did not account for the massive infusion of cash into local and state contests, as well as judicial and referendum votes, by the same wealthy donors, corporations and interest groups that fund national campaigns. The full picture shows that the worst fears of good-government groups have already been realized.

§ The biggest fantasy promulgated by pundits after the 2012 election was that President Obama’s victory showed that grassroots activism can still beat big money. In fact, Obama and his supporters raised and spent roughly $1.1 billion, while Mitt Romney and his supporters raised and spent roughly $1.2 billion. Yes, Obama’s campaign collected more small individual contributions than Romney’s. But the Democrat’s campaign also collected more large contributions than did the Republican’s. Romney’s relatively slight money advantage came from the higher level of spending on his behalf by interests like the Super PACs. Bottom line: in 2012, big money beat big money.

§ Big money—especially big corporate money—gets what it pays for. It’s easy to blame the absolutist demands of the Tea Party movement (which itself benefits from special-interest funding) or right-wing talkers like Rush Limbaugh for gridlock in Washington. But the truth, as Sunlight Foundation senior fellow Lee Drutman notes, is that “big corporate money is often quite eager to see gridlock. Just ask Big Oil if it would like an active Congress on climate issues. Or ask hedge fund donors if they’d like an active Congress on the taxation of carried interest.” Even when the process moves, as on the healthcare debate in 2009–10, the result is a reform that steers federal dollars to insurance companies, not single-payer Medicare for All. It’s even worse when it comes to debates about education and austerity; with the frequent collaboration of media that buy into the most simplistic spin, politicians become indistinguishable as they promote cuts and privatization schemes that answer the demands of billionaire projects like those of the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, Pete Peterson’s Fix the Debt campaign or the Betsy DeVos–chaired American Federation for Children.

§ The interests that pushed campaign spending to record levels in 2010 and 2012 are only getting started. That’s the overwhelming conclusion arising from our interviews with elected officials, candidates, campaign managers, consultants and directors of so-called “independent” organizations. Spending on federal races doubled between 2000 and 2012. It will no doubt double again far more rapidly—and keeping track of it will become far more difficult, as wealthy donors and corporate interests increasingly rely on the subterfuges of “dark money.” As this spending increases, the influence of small donors will decline because, as the Center for Responsive Politics notes, “small donors make good press, big donors get you re-elected.” That’s why, even after his relatively disappointing 2012 season, billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson was greeted by Republicans in Washington as a conquering hero. They knew Adelson was right when he explained: “I don’t cry when I lose. There’s always a new hand coming up. I know in the long run we’re going to win.” And with a $26.5 billion fortune, it’s no sweat for him to keep placing $200 million bets.

§ Prospects for legislative remedies are slim, perhaps nil. Supreme Court decisions that began with the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling have just about eliminated the government’s ability to restrict the flow of big money into politics. Citizens United got the headlines, and deservedly so, as it broke down century-old barriers to the direct purchase of elections by corporations. But it was part of a long trend. And it is not finished: this fall, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court will entertain arguments—from Mitch McConnell and others—for scrapping most, and perhaps all, remaining campaign contribution limits. The High Court is on an activist course that appears to have two goals: making it easier for big money to influence elections and making it harder for citizens to vote by undermining the structural integrity of the Voting Rights Act. The appointment of a liberal justice could tip the balance on many issues, but the fact is that the Court has already moved in a decidedly anti-democratic direction.

§ Just as the courts have become unreliable defenders of the public interest when it comes to elections, so too have much of the media. Journalism is in crisis. The demands of investors and a steady decline in advertising revenue have led to the high-profile closing of newspapers and the low-profile contraction of newsroom staff, which has left vast areas of politics and governance uncovered. The darkness is so deep that we witness increasing instances of flawed and unelectable candidates for high office—a US senator from South Carolina, the lieutenant governor of Illinois—being exposed only after they are nominated. The little coverage there is often confers “legitimacy” based on fundraising ability and analyzes ads rather than ideas. A quarter-century after the major television networks ceded control of presidential debates to a consortium operated by the former chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, much of TV campaign coverage boils down to spin points recited by partisan talking heads.

§ The idea that the Internet would be a permanent lie detector preventing politicians from telling different messages to different audiences has been turned on its head. The National Security Agency surveillance scandal reminds us that the government has access to immense amounts of “Big Data.” So do corporations and politicians. As Bloomberg Businessweek noted after the 2012 election, cutting-edge campaigns like Obama’s are “unifying vast commercial and political databases to understand the proclivities of individual voters.” Indeed, they’re getting so good at it that, after the president was re-elected, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, helped Obama’s Big Data team establish a start-up firm to teach corporations how to do what the campaigns did first. We are entering a new political age in which candidates and parties will maintain extraordinary dossiers on prospective voters. They will tailor messages to demographic groups, to donors and ultimately to individual voters. Obama had the advantage in 2012, but Republicans have reached for their checkbooks and plan to leapfrog the Democrats in 2014. Are there any safeguards? None that we can see.

§ The void created by the contraction of journalism has been filled by a slurry of negative ads so foul that they reduce voter turnout, as part of a broader voter-suppression strategy by political players who prefer small, easily managed electorates. Instead of objecting, the owners of TV stations shave minutes off local newscasts to make space for more ads; in battleground states, political money has become the mother’s milk of local television. Is it any wonder that some of the loudest critics of campaign finance reform are the media conglomerates that profit by giving us less news and more propaganda?

We do not use the word “propaganda” casually. Countries that rank far higher than the United States on The Economist’s Democracy Index bar paid political ads because they view them as propaganda. Those countries also provide dramatically more support for public media to ensure a broader range of voices and deeper political analysis. We need to recognize the dangers of a system in which voters get their information not from a free press but from a money-and-media election complex that seeks to maintain the free flow of cash into its coffers—and to protect the interests of the sources of that cash.

We have entered a new Gilded Age in which the gap between rich and poor is widening rapidly. Our politics threatens to accelerate the redistribution of wealth upward with the privatization of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Postal Service and even public education. Instead of calling attention to that threat—and to the need for fundamental regulation of Wall Street and corporate power—much of our media collaborate with the political class to depict our choice as being between the cruel and usual austerity of Paul Ryan and the kinder and gentler austerity of Ryan’s Democratic colleagues.

* * *

With the underpinnings of civil society under assault, it is easy and often necessary to be drawn into the fight of the moment, to battle as teachers in Wisconsin and women in Texas and African-Americans in North Carolina have to preserve gains once thought to be permanently enshrined. Those battles are vital and cannot be neglected. But they are not enough. Merely responding to the constantly emerging symptoms of the crisis or waiting in hopes of a better election result or the next Supreme Court appointment simply locks in a “new normal” that is certainly not new and should never be normal.

A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt declared: “At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new.” Roosevelt’s words helped to usher in a transformational age of reform. At the start of the 1910s, children who should have been in school were changing bobbins in mills. Workers who dared to organize unions were mowed down by paramilitary forces. Women who could not vote were dying in sweatshop fires. The government lacked the ability to collect the revenues necessary to address the basic demands of a nation experiencing dramatic but horrifyingly unequal growth. Progress in Washington was stymied by millionaires who bought Senate seats in back-room deals. Reformers decried a “money power” that made a mockery of the promise of popular governance.

Ten years later, the Constitution had been amended so that women could vote, the Senate was directly elected by the people and Congress had the power to implement progressive taxation. At the same time, child labor, workplace safety and pure-food and -drug laws were implemented; labor unions were re-energized; and the rough outlines of what would become the New Deal were taking shape in states that came to be known as “laboratories of democracy.” The great leap forward was made possible by a recognition that we needed fundamental change and that some of that change required amending the Constitution. It was the same in the 1960s and early ’70s, another age of reform that saw constitutional amendments banning poll taxes and clearing the way for 18-year-olds to vote. For a moment it seemed likely that another amendment would eliminate the archaic Electoral College, and that the promise of one-person, one-vote might end the gerrymandering of legislative districts. In that age of democratic ferment, it became possible to conceive and implement a Civil Rights Act, a Voting Rights Act and economic justice measures like Medicare, Medicaid and the War on Poverty.

Since then, reformers have generally worked within political, regulatory, legislative and judicial confines. That was understandable as long as it seemed that a framework for open and honorable politics was on the way. But that’s no longer happening. The United States is tumbling down that Economist list, on the brink of being reclassified as a “flawed democracy.” Today’s crisis is different from the ones that inspired the two earlier periods of activism. But it demands a response that is every bit as ambitious.

We fully support legislative and legal initiatives that advance democracy. But we do not believe they will succeed unless they are part of a broad campaign for constitutional reform. Yes, we’re for a new Voting Rights Act. But we agree with Representatives Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan—and the folks from Fair Vote and Color of Change—who argue that America should not leave voting rights to chance. We need a constitutionally defined and protected right to vote. We need to eliminate the Electoral College, so that never again will a candidate who loses the popular vote, as George Bush did in 2000, be able to manipulate his way into the presidency. We need to bar gerrymandering and make real the promise of one person, one vote. And we need to make it clear once and for all that money is not speech, corporations are not people and government is not for sale to the highest bidder.

Not every challenge of the current crisis requires constitutional reform. We can repair our broken media system through supercharged funding of public broadcasting, robust support for community media and content-neutral systems that subsidize independent, not-for-profit journalism. We don’t agree with most proposals for vouchers, but we like variations on economist Dean Baker’s plan to issue citizens $100 democracy vouchers that they can direct to independent, not-for-profit media.

Yes, we know that many of these measures are “impossible.” Indeed, every fix of consequence was once deemed impossible. As impossible as the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act or marriage equality or the vote for women and 18-year-olds, as impossible as banning poll taxes or ending the appointment of senators by state legislatures. As impossible as creating an income tax.

When progressives wrap their heads around the idea of fundamental change, the range of possibility expands. The demand moves beyond the technical to the aspirational. We don’t suggest that it’s easy to amend the Constitution or to reshape political or media systems. And it may really be impossible to win some fights. But any honest assessment of America’s arc of history tells us that it has bent toward justice only when the demand has been sufficient to address the crisis.

Our current crisis requires a great demand. The people know this. That’s why the most successful reform movement of the moment is the most ambitious: sixteen states and more than 500 communities—from the city of Los Angeles to the town of Mount Desert, Maine—are, at the encouragement of Free Speech for People, Move to Amend, Public Citizen, Common Cause, People for the American Way and other groups, calling for a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of cities, states and the federal government to regulate money in politics. It is an audacious demand, one that could overturn Citizens United. But it is not sufficient to renew American democracy. For that, we need a new age of reform that answers the call for voting rights, for free and fair elections and for a media system that informs rather than discourages voters. To offer anything less underestimates the task at hand. We must recognize anew, as Dr. King did a half-century ago, that “America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us, as a nation and a society, to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage. It is impossible to underestimate the crisis we face in America. The stability of a civilization, the potential of free government, and the simple honor of men are at stake.”

It is too late for timid supplications. It is time to demand democracy—and nothing less.

In “The Money & Media Election Complex,” John Nichols and Robert M. McChesney explained how, unchecked by campaign finance regulation, unchallenged by a journalism sufficient to expose abuses, a nearly unbeatable force opposed progressives in 2010. 

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