Super Man or Super PAC?
A third element enters the race for the White House
With the 2012 Republican primary election in full swing, Americans are encountering an onslaught of political blunders. From Rick Perry’s now infamous debate “oops” to Newt Gingrich’s alleged open marriage, the Republican race seems more like a circus than a presidential primary.
Yet some of the greatest and most influential absurdities in this election are not well understood. A sideshow of shadow financiers now make up one of the most pervasive media buzzwords: the Super PACs. Or, more accurately described, the political action committee run amok.
In light of Claremont McKenna’s SAT scandal and the greater issues of integrity, transparency and accountability, the impact that Super PAC could have on access to information about presidential nominees and the potential dampening of the concerns of small groups – including our college community – is particularly relevant.
What is a Super PAC?
It started with Citizens United. In what prominent legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky called “one of the most important First Amendment cases in years,” the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional for the government to regulate political spending by independent actors. Effectively, the Court reversed forty years of campaign finance reform.
At its most fundamental level, a Super PAC is an organization that is allowed to raise unlimited campaign money from corporations, unions, and private donors. But beyond its surface definition, Super PACs embody a far more dangerous phenomenon. Behind the veil of innocuous and obscurely patriotic names like “Restore Our Future,” “Make Us Great Again,” and “The Red, White and Blue Fund,” Super PACs are vehicles for the nation’s corporate and individual elite to almost unilaterally determine the validity of a potential presidential candidate.
Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of these colossal campaign piggy banks is their slanderous nature. For instance, in the weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary election, the Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich aired a twenty-eight minute video that defined opponent Mitt Romney as a “predatory corporate raider.” Perhaps consequently, Romney’s approval ratings were significantly undercut in the state.
An Indifferent America
Corporations can buy our elections. So where’s the outrage? Professor David Menefee-Libey, Chair of the Pomona Politics Department, suggests that the American people have not called for an end to Super PACs’ tactics because “a really larger portion of Americans feel really disconnected from government and public policy…[and] care more about…what’s on their iPod than who’s in the Oval Office.”
Interestingly, nearly all of the Republican candidates have publicly reprehended the methods of Super PACs. Before Jon Huntsman ended his campaign, he stated that “this race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation’s history.”
However, the reality of the matter is that the American political process is no stranger to negative campaigning. What distinguishes this election from others is the sheer amount of money being invested. With Super PACs outspending campaigns two to one, presidential hopefuls do not have much of a choice if they intend to compete this election season.
As Menefee-Libey explains, “campaigns and elections are a very pragmatic world. It’s not an idealistic world in terms of campaigning and fundraising because it’s all about winning and losing on election day.”
Even President Obama – who has publicly condemned these special interest groups as a “threat to democracy” – is joining the Super PAC frenzy by asking fundraisers to redirect donations to Priorities USA Action, an organization backing his reelection campaign.
Obama for America campaign manager Jim Messina defended the President’s decision, stating that he is simply “fac[ing] the reality of the law as it currently stands.” Yet Obama’s endorsement of Super PACs is leading some supporters to question his stance as a reformer.
To give some sense of the extent of the donations to Super PACs, Carl Forti, former political director for Mitt Romney and one of the people heading the Super PAC that supports him, admitted that their organization will spend “between…three hundred, three-fifty [million dollars]” by the end of the year.
When contrasted with the current economic climate in the United States, this massive expenditure borders on ridiculous. “This is happening at the same time as a radical increase in economic inequality in the United States,” Menefee-Libey says, “so the broader context of this is really important. If you increase the role of money in elections at the same time as you increase economic inequality, that compounds the impact and makes those wealthy people…more powerful.”
There is one person using this new found wealth-biased power to try and curb the negative impacts of Super PACs, albeit through satire. Stephen Colbert has once again entered the political discourse with his creation of “The Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC.” With fellow comedian Jon Stewart, Colbert has highlighted some of the outrageous aspects of Super PACs, namely the premise that there is a separation of communication between the committee and the candidate.
Even though the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has made it illegal for Super PACs to discuss campaign tactics with candidates, the fact that most Super PACs are run by former staff members of the candidates does not make coordinating strategy very difficult. And when it comes to regulating the actions of Super PACs and candidates, the most that the FEC has ever done is levy a $300,000 fine. The average penalty is much lower.
Colbert Report fan Chris Bergeron PO ‘14 thinks that Colbert and Stewart’s actions are “bringing awareness of what Super PACs are, how they function, and some of the flaws of our campaign finance laws to a group of people who otherwise might know much about it.”
Although we may laugh at Colbert’s antics, it is also vital that we take a moment to critically analyze the message behind the joke and what it says about our political system and media coverage as a whole.
The End of Democracy?
When confronted with the size and scope of Super PACs, we may assume that their presence will drown out the influence of any single person’s vote. However, Menefee-Libey still feels that there are ways for individuals, especially college students, to get involved in political proceedings.
“Run for office!” he encourages. “Participate at all levels…There’s a huge array of things that people can do to affect the political process. Put candidates into the pipeline. Run people for school boards and city council so that they become viable…and in twenty years, you’ll have a presidential candidate.”
Bergeron echoed Professor Menefee-Libey’s hopefulness saying, “It’s easy to think that the influence of one person’s vote versus one person with a lot of money is minuscule, but I do think that the old adage that every vote counts is true in some sense. Everyone’s vote counts and every vote matters.”
So although it may seem as though Super PACs have contaminated our election process, we as political participants should not simply surrender. “The limiting factor here is whether or not voters see this and decide that they don’t like it,” Menefee-Libey believes. It is crucial to remember the importance of individual responsibility in our election process and our democratic duty to be informed about the issues, go out and vote and ultimately enact meaningful change.
“There’s a pretty healthy diversity of views…and skepticism about doctrines and dogmas at the Claremont Colleges,” Menefee-Libey concludes. “Based on my encounters with students, I’m optimistic on how things are going to be ten to fifteen years from now.”