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The Most Important Mid-Term Election of All Time?

October 23rd, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I never thought I’d say this about a mid-term election, but I think this might be the most important one we’ve ever had.

It could just as easily not have been—it could have been just another boring mid-term where a few seats change hands and no real clear message is sent—but something happened in these last few weeks that changes everything.

It began when the president of the United States started talking about the most important issue in American politics. I’m no big fan of Barack Obama—I usually only mention him to criticize him—but I have to give him credit for forcing this discussion. He could have chosen any issue, any theme, any message for the Democrats to hammer home in the weeks before the election but he chose the most important one: the question of how political campaigns are financed.

Of course, he didn’t really have much choice. With the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, the floodgates have been opened up and corporate money is pouring into the Republican Party’s campaign coffers. Tens of millions of dollars are being raised from a mere handful of donors. A politician used to have to make hundreds of phone calls to potential donors and raise money through small donations from average people, but that’s no longer the case. Now that a single corporation or wealthy individual can basically bankroll an entire campaign, any politician willing to sell-out (that’s the vast majority) can potentially raise all the money he or she needs with a single phone call.

To his credit, Obama saw which way the winds were blowing and decided to take the politically risky move of drawing attention to it. Most people’s eyes glaze over in boredom at the very sound of the words “campaign finance” and the conventional wisdom in Washington was that you couldn’t move voters by talking about that kind of thing. The mainstream media outlets weren’t going to shine the spotlight on it because it’s not exactly ratings-gold and they’re all owned by giant corporations anyway, so the president had to use the bully pulpit to get people talking about it and thereby give the American people a chance to fight back before it’s too late.

After this upcoming election, it might be too late. That’s why I wonder if this could in fact be the most important mid-term election in American history.

If you haven’t already read the New York Times article about how large corporations are able to anonymously fund the Republican Party’s campaign efforts by funneling their money through the Chamber of Commerce, I hope you’ll read it carefully and explain to everyone you know what’s going on. Because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is technically a not-for-profit entity (although it’s made up of the largest for-profit businesses in the country), they don’t have to disclose their donors. We know that companies like Goldman Sachs, Chevron Texaco, Dow Chemical, and Prudential Financial are giving millions to the Chamber, but these donations are not earmarked for specific campaign ads so they don’t have to account for supporting specific candidates. But they know what they’re getting when they donate to the Chamber—93% of the ads they run either support Republican candidates or criticize their Democratic opponents.

The most chilling fact of all is that back in 2008, even before Citizens United, nearly half of the $140 million in donations to the Chamber came from just 45 donors. 45 people virtually bankrolling the Republican Party. Thanks to the Supreme Court, this stands to get even worse.

If you are a Republican, you may simply think “Great! More money for my side!” But unless you’re also one of the wealthiest 2% of Americans, this is bad news for you too. The Republican Party isn’t going to be the party of conservative ideals—it’ll simply be the party of the super-rich and nothing else. You’ll get what you want insofar as their interests are aligned with conservative ideology (if by “conservative ideology” you mean total deregulation of Wall Street, complete privatization of everything, and no consumer protection whatsoever), but good luck getting your Republican representative to even bother opening your e-mails if he or she doesn’t need your support.

To a great degree, this was already the state of affairs in Washington and Citizens United did nothing more than make it worse. The sea change in political fund-raising has been underway for many decades and all the Supreme Court did was speed it up.

But this gives us an opportunity that we didn’t have before, and as reluctant as I am to give Obama credit for anything I have to give him credit for this. Because he decided to make this the #1 issue for Democrats this election and got the rest of the party to follow suit, should they maintain enough seats in the next Congress to be able to push for campaign finance reform, they’ll have a strong mandate to do so.

That’s right—we now have a reason to vote for Democrats. Of course many are already happy enough with the health care and financial legislation that was passed to want to reward Democrats for their efforts anyway, but those of us who are deeply disappointed in how compromised and ineffectual those bills turned out to be were left wondering why we should even bother going to the polls. Yes, the Republican alternative would be far worse, but perhaps the Democrats needed to lose badly in order to shake them out of their complacency and get them to really fight for the middle class the next time they take power.

But if things keep going the way they’re going, the Democrats may never take power again. The wealthiest people in the country have more than enough money to outspend millions of regular citizens, and it’s only going to get worse the longer the economy remains in the ditch. The super-wealthy know that a bad economy works to their advantage, so if the Republican Party takes control you should expect things to remain this way. If 45 people manage to accumulate more wealth and power than the other 300 million of us combined, we will essentially have a one-party system in America. A plutocracy.

Much has been said about the “enthusiasm gap” between liberals and conservatives this year, with the conventional wisdom being that all of the energy is on the right. But the left now has a reason to get fired up, perhaps even more of a reason now than in 2008.

If you live in a state or district in which the Democrat is being bombarded with negative ads funded by a handful of billionaires, you should vote for that candidate on that basis alone. Tell the exit-pollsters that campaign financing was your #1 concern, and help shape the narrative that the media needs to tell after this election: that the Democratic Party was spared an electoral blowout due to massive push-back against the flood of money coming into the electoral process to drown out ordinary voices.

If Barack Obama goes into the second half of his first term with a clear mandate to do something about this, we might actually see some real campaign finance reform. Even someone as eager to compromise with the established powers as Barack Obama can see that he can’t afford to placate them on this issue. His political life and the political lives of all his fellow Democrats are in jeopardy if things are allowed to continue down this path.

Campaign finance reform has always been the key issue lurking behind every other issue. The politicians work for those who pay them, and if they get paid by the corporations and not average citizens, they will serve the corporations and not average citizens. Perhaps with Citizen United, the corporations pushed their luck a little too far and prompted a backlash that will finally send the balance of power swinging back in our direction. If that does turn out to be the result—and it’s up to the voters to make sure it does—that would make this the most important mid-term election of all time.

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