Last week two political actions in downtown Louisville highlighted opposite sides of the same coin. Heads was a protest put on by Occupy Louisville as part of the nationwide Occupy the Courts day of action marking the two year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision. This decision has turned the deluge of money pouring into the political process into a dam break. Tails was MoveOn's delivery of hundreds of thousands of petition signatures to President Obama (via the local headquarters of the Democratic Party on Barret Avenue) begging him not to sign away the Justice Department's right to investigate or prosecute criminal misconduct committed by the finance and banking industry... which donated $42 million to his 2008 campaign.
Without a doubt, the highlight of both actions was the mock wedding staged by Occupy Louisville, in which the relationship between Corporate America and The Government was legalized, as the "judge" declared, after having been consummated long ago. At least, it would have been made legal except that when the people were given the option of objecting now or forever holding their peace, everyone in attendance chose to object.
The connecting thread between the two protests isn't their subject matter, but the mistrust over the motives of our elected officials. Lurking behind both the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Movement is the suspicion, to say the least, that corporations and moneyed interests have rigged the system, and that the government of and by the people is no longer for the people. Given the finances involved, and years of punishing legislative decisions that cannot be explained any other way, it is of no surprise that the population is very concerned.
After the 2008 election, it was widely reported that America had gone through its first billion dollar election. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Obama and McCain campaigns raised a combined $1.1 billion. On top of that, there was another $500 million raised by other candidates like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, John Edwards, etc. And... on top of that, there was another $215 million spent by political action committees and still more by the now infamous "527" organizations. Altogether, the 2008 election ran closer to $2 billion.
That $2 billion in 2008 dwarfed the previous election in 2004, which in turn dwarfed the election before that in 2000. And that $2 billion is before the dam burst of Citizens United.
Consider this. In the 2002 mid-term election independent organizations, ie. not the candidates, their campaigns, or the political parties, spent about $27 million. In 2006, the next midterm election, independent organizations spent more than double that much at $68 million. In 2010, the first midterm election after the Citizens United decision, and a year in which organizations were late to come to grips with what this new financial arms race meant, independent organizations spent a whopping $304 million.
Presidential election years see a lot more spending than midterm election years. In 2008, independent organizations spent $302 million. If the growth rate seen in the last midterm cycle carries over to the presidential cycle, we could see spending, outside the political campaigns, of some $1.4 billion.
One of the things that will be different this year, is that rich people and corporations are no longer limited in how much they can donate for political campaigning. While it is true that they still have limits if they donate directly to campaigns or traditional political action committees, the Citizens United decision made it so that there is no limit to how much they can donate to the new SuperPACs. We'll see some of the numbers next month, but it is highly unlikely that Newt Gingrich would have won the Republican primary in South Carolina over the weekend if it hadn't been for a $5 million donation by a single Nevada businessman. This money was spent immediately on a massive television advertising campaign that, by all accounts, absolutely buried South Carolina TV viewers.
A point made on one of the Sunday morning politics shows was that if Newt Gingrich were to, amazingly, go on to win the presidency... what would be the likelihood that said businessman's call would be taken if he suddenly found himself in need of some political juice to, say, defeat a bill that would increase taxes on his casino operations? Pretty high, you have to think. Now multiply that $5 million to the $1.4 billion that could be spent outside the campaigns on undeniably campaign-related expenditures, and there is a very legitimate question about how much time any political office holder, at any level, is going to have for the likes of you and me... people who could no more buy a primary win in South Carolina with the stroke of a pen than we could flap our arms and fly to Nevada.
A final note on this subject, for now, is that this is by no stretch of the imagination a partisan problem, and it is also not a problem that sprang into being from the Citizens United decision. Our disenfranchisement is distinctly bipartisan, and has been growing more and more profound for a decade. While it is widely assumed that Republicans will benefit more from the Citizens United decision than Democrats, the 350,000 people who signed the petition urging President Obama to side with them instead of the banks, certainly had to have on their mind the question of whether that was enough signatures to overcome $42 million in campaign donations, or if any such number of signatures even exists.
Louisville.com's The Arena section features opinions from active participants in the city's politics. Their viewpoints are not those of Louisville.com (a website is an inanimate object and, as such, has no opinions).
Disclosure: The author is a volunteer organizer for MoveOn, and was involved in organizing the action related to the banks and Occupy Louisville's Occupy the Courts action.