By: Adam Stromme
Today I received a rather unfortunate email from the grassroots political organization I follow known as Public Citizen, headed by Robert Weissman. It provided a series of abstract descriptions on a hapless nation riven with corruption: “Pacistan”, as they called it. After a series of tragic examples of corruption and abuse of power at the highest level, the email unleashed a torrent of warnings about the threat of the country “[lurching] toward plutocracy.” This country, of course, was the United States, and the thrust of the email towards attempting to drive home the scale of corruption by way of decontextualizing it from our vernacular was admirable.
All of this is well and good, and to be expected of a political organization centered around whipping up the vote and encouraging grassroots organizing, but in reading it I couldn’t help but feel that all too many of us have become numbed to the repercussions of corruption within our highest offices and on the campaign trail. It all sort of falls into the platitude we as Americans hold about never being able to trust a politician “as far as you can throw ‘em” and so on. In short, I felt that as much as I appreciated what they were doing, it may have missed the point. If anything, I have always found that the most powerful way to get a scale of the crisis is to force yourself to stare face to face at how the familiar names and faces all fall into the very abstract phenomenon of corruption and abuse that we all flatly accept occur.
Doing this isn’t hard, indeed, evidence of it is all around us; almost to an uncomfortable extent. Take an article published yesterday in the New York Times titled: “Democrats seek a richer roster to match GOP in 2016” by two of their prominent political columnists. The article lays out in no uncertain terms that campaigning at the nation level has more than anything become a question of getting money, writing that Clinton is already looking to spend “almost twice as much as Democratic Super PACS and other outside groups spent to help re-elect President Obama in 2012” and yet chastising detractors of money driven politics who’ve unreasonably inflated the amount of fundraising that will be required, with “a more realistic” amount for a national campaign only sitting at “around $1 billion.” This is the new normal.
While the majority of Americans are left to scratch their heads as to how the fact that only $1,000,000,000 will need to be spent by a single front runner candidate in the routinely outspent center right “liberal” party in a national election is a reassuring fact, much of the real sludge for the elections will continue to be pumped in from beyond the scenes. Owing to the mobster-like mentality of money’s unlimited and nigh unregulatable ability to “speak” as interpreted by the Supreme courts in a series of dynamite exercises of dynamiting election restriction legislations in cases such as Citizen’s United v. FEC (2008) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2013), the American political system has become inundated with a disgusting amount of money.
Yet strangely enough, a significant part of the PAC problem— and indeed, the rise of Pakistan in general— arguably owe its existence to a very well intentioned piece of legislation: The 2002 Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act. Intended to remove the “soft money” from politics by banning large scale direct donations to political parties, the BCRA has instead effectively rerouted all of the money and resources bound for political parties running campaigns to organizations outside of the conventional political process, like 501(c)(3)s. Unable to donate en masse directly— and thus within the purview of the FEC— the political elite and the politically savvy have now opted to donate to organizations which are not required to disclose their donor lists, a phenomenon which signaled the rise of the Super PAC and so called “dark money.”
Yet strangely enough, a significant part of the PAC problem— and indeed, the rise of PACistan in general— arguably owe its existence to a very well intentioned piece of legislation: The 2002 Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act.
All of this, far more so than the day to day humdrum of the political parties, should be seizing our focus as the ground zero for political radicalism in the United States. It alone can explain the Banana Republic-style political problems stealing our headlines.
With the size of political parties’ financial base having disproportionately shrunk almost 20% since the BCRA, our political parties— in short, those actually accountable to the American electorate— have increasingly been radicalized to meet a narrow radical fringe with connections outside, that have ways to get their way inside, our Congress. To quote political scientists Robert Kelner and Raymond La Raja, our Political Parties have now been “hollowed out” and forced “to outsource their bread-and-butter activities, including opposition research and voter list management… becoming dependent on outside groups” and “ceding power to organizations that operate with little or no disclosure …that often have narrow political agendas.” This is not the world of a far off PACistan, these are the stories that sit on our very headlines, and they are all the more impactful when we are forced to confront them as such.
Context, in our day and age, is even more terrifying than the text itself; and that, is the real tragedy.