February 15, 2011- Friday, January 21, marked the one-year anniversary of "Citizens United," a Supreme Court case that dramatically accelerates the corruptive force of money in US politics.
When money flows in our economy, it's a fuel that helps businesses flourish and people make a living. When money flows in our political system, however, it's a cancer that infects politicians and through them our institutions of democracy. With Citizens United, the cancer is now metastasizing, and as the corruption accelerates, it generates a downward political spiral that threatens the very future of our country.
While this problem is shared by all Americans, the progressive community is frequently at the frontline fighting money's influence in public policy. As a collection of separate issues, it has struggled for relevance in broader American society, but as leaders in the fight to drive money out of politics, progressives have an opportunity to redefine themselves as restorers of American democracy.
Increasing Money's Influence in Elections
Last year's landmark Citizens United Supreme Court case struck down previous limitations on "outside spending" – the money channeled through organizations outside an official campaign, but which nonetheless run ads, make phone calls, and do lots of other things to support a campaign. With Citizens United, the Supreme Court not only made it easier to fund this kind of electioneering, but also made it much harder for citizens to know who's actually behind it.
According to recent analysis done by New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, over one-third of all outside ad spending in the 2010 elections came from secret sources, made possible by Citizens United. The total funding it unleashed represented $1 for every $5 dollars spent by candidates, which translated to over $85 million in US Senate races alone.
All this spending has impact; take for example, the small network of hedge fund executives who pumped a last-minute $10 million into key races last year. One of the races they helped win was a seat for the incoming chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on capital markets – the legislative committee responsible for any future reforms of Wall Street.
This is remarkable impact, especially considering that the ruling had only been in effect for nine months prior to the election. Imagine what the impact will look like in 2012, once mega-contributors have digested what they learned in 2010 and have more time to fully prepare. I'll give you a hint; it's going to get bigger – much bigger.
Public Frustration Is Rising
Stopping this runaway train won't be easy, and progressives couldn't do it alone even if they tried. Their best bet lies in building constructive outlets for the growing frustration and despair that plagues America today.
The American people aren't happy about the state of their government. A recent Pew Research Center survey sees a "perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government – a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials." Gallup similarly confirms that trust in government, and our legislature in particular, is at a record low. Adding fuel to the flame is the sense among many Americans that government economic policies increasingly benefit big business at the expense of the American people.
People aren't just frustrated – they're angry. These same polls reflect a sharp uptick in anger toward the government, something the Tea Party is using very effectively to promote its ideas and candidates.