November 15, 2010

We the People, Inc.

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The two weeks following this year’s midterm election have been filled with solemn post-mortems of the stunning rebuke handed to the Democratic Party. The magnitude of the shift in party power has invited the historicization of this election, perhaps justifiably: not since 1948 (when the Democrats gained 75 seats in the House of Representatives) has an election resulted in such a pronounced swing in party alignment.

The dominant narrative has framed the midterm election as an articulation of voter outrage, resulting from Obama’s health care overhaul, the bank bailouts, stunted economic growth or any permutation of those and other conditions. To an extent, this narrative is accurate; there is no denying the vast number of Americans who have grown increasingly vocal in their discontentment with government as of late. But as to whether or not this sentiment — on its own — fully accounts for the recent seat losses, I tend towards thinking it does not. Understanding why simply requires following the money. Indeed, this election might be less noteworthy as an expression of citizen’s anger against government than as an illustration of the power of corporations to capitalize on such vitriol.

In January of this year, the Supreme Court released its decision in the case of Citizens United v. F.E.C., which challenged limitations of independent corporate spending for political purposes. The Court ruled five to four to overturn the relevant parts of the McCain-Feingold Act, essentially giving corporations license to spend unlimited sums of money to engage in political speech through various media, so long as their efforts are not coordinated with candidates. Consequently, corporations have been funneling tremendous sums of money through 501(c) groups — tax-exempt nonprofits that are able to engage in political speech, though political speech cannot consume more than half of their expenditures.

One of the arguments made by proponents of the Citizens United ruling was that competing interests would essentially neutralize the effect of the decision; unions, for instance, could conceivably donate as much as business interests, and while one may emerge the victor, the fight would more or less be fair. Unfortunately, the money trail from the midterm election speaks decidedly to the contrary. Corporate money channeled through 501(c) groups has instead fallen into the hands of Republicans by a margin of more than nine to one, and that’s only what we can tell from the money that’s been disclosed. 501(c)(4) groups — a subsection of 501(c) groups dedicated to “[promoting] social welfare” — that receive corporate contributions are not obligated to disclose their donations: the true disparity in corporate donations is most likely significantly larger.

Two groups stand out as particularly egregious examples of corporate influence. American Crossroads is a 527 group created by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie to promote conservative causes and candidates. However, when Rove and Gillespie found donations to be less than they had hoped, they created Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4) group that would allow their donors to give anonymously. Their strategy worked: Three weeks before the election, more than 57 percent of the $56 million in donations received by the two groups came in the form of anonymous donations to Crossroads GPS. As for American Crossroads, reports in late September found that more than 90 percent of their donations had come from a handful of billionaires. Regardless, the money was used to fund attack ads against Democrats in races around the country.

Some might defend corporations’ independent expenditures for political speech as just or constitutionally protected. The legitimacy of such corporate speech is the subject of a discussion certainly worth having, but not one I would be able to properly engage in the space I have left. Rather, my motivation for writing this column stems from my utter frustration with the hypocrisy of those on the right who espouse anger at corporate excesses, yet unfailingly oppose any effort by the Obama administration to curb them. The same voters who expressed such vehement disapproval with the “fat cats” on Wall Street have simultaneously supported candidates bankrolled by those very corporations — and the irony of such an alignment seems to escape them.

Even if I were to concede that the Tea Party grew to prominence as a grassroots movement (the efforts of Rupert Murdoch and the billionaire Koch brothers to both fund and organize the Tea Party from its inception tell a very different story), to say that the success of conservatives in this past midterm was the product of some sort of bizarro-populist revival is to completely ignore the role that corporate interests played in contributing to the coffers of Republican candidates. Considering that in more than 90 percent of House races, the better-funded candidate wins, such an advantage is crucial to a campaign’s success. While there were indeed genuinely angry voters, their voices were undoubtedly magnified by the efforts of corporations to protect their profit margins. Had these companies been unable to spend so much — or had they been required to do so publicly — I sincerely doubt the election would have resulted in the reversal of power we now face.

David Murdter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter