The white Louisiana farmer's lament a century ago that "Us poor people vote but we don't elect nobody" needs modern revision. Now it would be truthful to say "Us poor people vote a little but we elect people who vote against us."
Americans, particularly the poorer of us, have always been suckers for slick advertising, making us crave what we do not need or cannot afford. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has turned American elections, from top to bottom, into a Madison Avenue grab bag. Political offices go to the man or woman and the party with the big bucks and slick ads. The extent to which a candidate will tend to the needs of the people who elect him is not a serious factor. It takes a fanatically attentive voter even to know.
That is the effect of the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010, a ruling that set corporations free to buy elections anonymously and liberated the so-called super PACs to take corporate and unlimited personal gifts and pour them into campaigns against overmatched opponents. The court said corporations enjoyed the same rights as an individual citizen and if they had the money to drown individual voices it was just the American way.
Is that hyperbole? Through the first week of March, "independent" expenditures — those from outside a candidate's own war chest — totaled $80 million in this election cycle, and we have barely begun. Compare that with $7.2 million at the same time in 2004. Corporate PAC money is flowing into individual campaign treasuries, nearly all Republican, in record amounts, too.
John Paul Stevens, the 92-year-old retired Supreme Court justice who wrote the ringing dissent in Citizens United, read a scholarly treatise against the decision last week at the Clinton School forum. He thought the five-man majority, or one or two of them, were already seeing the horrible ramifications of their decision and would someday undo the worst of it.
Montana's crusty farmer-governor, Brian Schweitzer, wrote the best commentary on Citizens United last week in The New York Times. Montana has had the toughest campaign finance laws in the country since 1912, outlawing corporate spending on political campaigns in any form, but the Supreme Court notified Montana that it had to stop enforcing that law owing to Citizens United.
Montanans wrote the initiative and passed it after a buccaneer miner who owned the largest copper deposits on earth and was one of the richest men on the planet bribed a majority of state legislators in 1899 to make him a U.S. senator. (Legislatures chose senators in those days.) When the bribes came to light, the U.S. Senate expelled him.
Two years ago, corporate groups like Americans for Prosperity began pouring money into state legislative campaigns in Montana, and their bills to end environmental restrictions on mining began to pop up in the Montana legislature. Schweitzer vetoed them and joined a national campaign for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and prohibit corporate political funding.
A Catholic High teacher and other youthful visionaries (Dale Bumpers is on board, too) are trying to put an initiated act on the ballot in Arkansas this summer to outlaw corporate political funding and corporate lobbying gifts to public officials. Citizens United probably invalidates it.
But what is the evidence that all that money from corporations and their owners and officers corrupts voters' decision making? Look at a couple of Arkansas congressional seats.
You know all about Tim Griffin, the emissary from the lobbying precincts of Washington who was elected congressman from central Arkansas two years ago and bids to be re-elected this year although few voters would agree with his priorities like dismantling the current Medicare system and curtailing environmental regulation. American Crossroads, his old boss Karl Rove's big super PAC, is raising money again for Griffin's ample treasury.
In the Fourth District of south and west Arkansas last month, Republican primary voters voted for Tom Cotton.
More than a fourth of the Harvard grad's money came through the Club for Growth, the billionaire club in Washington that seeks to shut down Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, convert Social Security to a private investment program, halt environmental and safety rules, and end taxation of wealthy investors.
If voters from Ashley to Madison County knew what he expected to do, or what his main backers expect him to do, what are the chances even 5 percent would vote for him? He's considered a cinch.