US democracy: The power of money

Just how much does money distort the political process?

The US presidential elections in November 2012 are expected to become the most expensive in history. One estimate by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) goes as high as $11bn.

The vast majority of this political money has come from a handful of super-rich supporters of the Republican Party dwarfing the attempts by citizens, associations or labour unions to do the same.

“It’s not even that a candidate is spending 30 or 40 per cent of his time raising money. It’s that he’s spending 30 or 40 or 50 or in some congressional contexts up to 70 per cent of their time raising money from the tiniest slice of the one per cent. Meaning they can’t help but become especially sensitive to the needs or desires … of the one per cent, and increasingly oblivious to the needs or concerns of the rest of the public.

– Professor Lawrence Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University

Many on the right claim deregulating campaign financing as a victory for free speech whilst most on the left fear the changes are corrupting democracy.

Controversial campaign funding rule changes brought in after a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 have opened the floodgates to billionaire donors with the potential to buy influence all the way to the White House.

The Citizens United ruling means that anyone can support a candidate with unlimited funding through the use of groups known as Super PACs (Political Action Committees) and some donors can keep their identity and the source of their money secret through similar organisations which have earned them the nickname ‘Dark Money’ groups.

The new system is rarely challenged in the mainstream media. Broadcasters benefit from all the spending on political advertising and news journalists use the adverts as a big source for their election stories.

But more fundamentally, in a free market society where the richest 400 people have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans, Empire asks if money transforms or distorts the whole political process. What happens on the morning after when the lobbyists catch up with the politicians to push their interests? And who is challenging this system when the media benefits from all the spending on political advertising?

Joining us as interviewees: Senator Richard Lugar, the long-serving and outgoing Republican Indiana senator; and James Bopp Jr, the lawyer whose work has been immensely successful in deregulating campaign finance and who was instrumental in winning the landmark Citizens United case.

And we debate the larger issues of money and power in American politics with our guests: Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; Steven Hoersting, the co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, an attorney who is regarded as an architect of the Super PAC system; Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University and the author of more than 30 books, including Interest Groups in American Campaigns: The New Face of Electioneering; and Larry Beinhart, a novelist and author of the critically acclaimed novel American Hero, which was adapted into the film Wag the Dog.


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