I have just finished reading the excellent article by Jane Mayer, which appeared in a recent New Yorker magazine. Entitled "State for Sale," the article chronicles the activities of Art Pope in North Carolina where he has successfully taken over the state legislature. How? you might ask.
Well, he bought enough Republican seats to change the state legislature in North Carolina--a state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and where both houses of the state general assembly had not been controlled by ONE party for a hundred plus years.
Here's how the article opens: "In the spring of 2010, the conservative political strategist Ed Gillespie flew from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh, North Carolina, to spend a day laying the groundwork for REDMAP, a new project aimed at engineering a Republican takeover of state legislatures. Gillespie hoped to help his party get control of statehouses where congressional redistricting was pending, thereby leveraging victories in cheap local races into a means of shifting the balance of power in Washington."
The basic strategy was to go after elected officials and paint them as too liberal. Throw enough money at something, and you can change people's minds. And that's exactly what happened.
This strategy has eerie echoes of the current efforts of the Koch brothers. In another New Yorker article--titled "Covert Operations"--Jane Mayer had also chronicled the Koch brothers' rise in political financing circles. These billionaire brothers have set up various foundations which primed the pump by funding the "grassroots" rise of the so-called Tea Party. No wonder some pundits refer to the Tea Party as an AstroTurf movement.
Along about now, are you wondering--so what? As the Mayer article on Art Pope unfolds, you learn that the tactics used were to target Democrats, throw buckets of money into ad campaigns that smeared these candidates and spread misinformation about them. In one instance, a candidate who had dark hair and dark skin was identified as Hispanic. The Pope money helped fund a campaign ad that showed the candidate with a sombrero and a tag line of "Mucho Taxo! Adios, Señor!"
What makes this disturbing trend of excess money being thrown into political campaigns is the recent Supreme Court decision on Citizens United. You can follow the link to Wikipedia to read the basics of the case, but in brief the Supreme Court held that corporations WERE people and had First Amendment rights to free speech. Thus, the Federal Election Commission could not limit the amount of money corporations could spend on political campaigns. The result of this decision is that the election process is being flooded with money, with the sources largely untraceable, as reporting requirements do not apply in many instances. One news commentator noted that another country--say China--could throw huge sums of money at a campaign to turn the outcome of an election in its favor on an issue such as environmental deregulation.
The result of this convergence is, I fear, a poisoning of democracy. Of course voters should be better educated. Of course people should do their homework before they mark a ballot for a candidate. Of course people should ignore ads that misidentify someone as Hispanic (never mind the so-what response that we really should give to such an identification). We have lost far too much of our critical thinking skills as it is--can democracy really survive as a political system when the electoral process is so polluted by far too much money?
A recent Writer's Almanac included a quote from our second president, John Adams: "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide."