A new Iowa group wants to teach the Internet about the evils of money in politics. Called “Iowa Pays the Price,” the Washington Times reports that “the group plans to spend about $500,000 on an educational campaign that will include social media and online videos.”
However, the Internet seems to already share the sentiment. Last week, a comprehensive survey by the New York Times discovered that 85 percent of Americans support campaign finance reform. A whopping 84 percent of the respondents argued that “money has too much influence” in politics today, and 66 percent believe the wealthy have more influence on the political process than ordinary Americans.
That said, although Americans would support measures like limiting the amount of money individuals and groups can contribute to political campaigns (77 to 78 percent) or requiring third-party groups to disclose the identities of their donors (72 percent), 58 percent believed these kinds of reforms aren’t likely to happen.
The main takeaway from these polls is that, while Americans want to find a way of getting big money out of politics, they aren’t entirely sure how to make that happen. This can be gleaned not only by their overwhelming pessimism, but by the fact that national politicians have spent years promising to implement meaningful campaign finance reform, only to allow the issue to fade from public consciousness once they’re actually elected.
As campaign finance reform picks up steam on Twitter and bipartisan groups push solutions to the issue, the push to #GetMoneyOutofPolitics is becoming one of the defining issues of the 2016 campaign. Here are three things Americans need to do if they’re serious about getting money out of politics.
1) They need to encourage their politicians to pass the many common sense campaign finance bills that have been proposed in the past
When the Tea Party forced our government to shut down a couple years ago, they inadvertently demonstrated that grassroots campaigns can overpower the desires of moneyed interest groups. After all, Wall Street was fiercely opposed to the shutdown, as were most Americans who didn’t share the Tea Party’s extreme right-wing fiscal agenda. Yet even though politicians too often vote with their pocketbooks, the Tea Party had repeatedly demonstrated its electoral power to Republican legislators. As a result, these politicians were receptive to demands that they would have otherwise ignored at their wealthy backers’ say so.
Unfortunately, when it comes to issues that would actually curb the political power of the super-rich—as opposed to simply hurting the economy, which was all a government shutdown accomplished—Americans don’t exercise this same vigilance in monitoring their elected officials.
For example, last year Senate Republicans blocked the passage of a constitutional amendment (which had overwhelming support from that body’s Democrats) that would have allowed federal and state lawmakers to override recent Supreme Court decisions that overturned previous campaign finance reform laws (more on that in Point #2). Republicans justified this by arguing that the bill would have threatened First Amendment rights, a position that 54 percent of Americans’ reject.
Nevertheless, Republicans wound up handily triumphing in the 2014 midterm elections, which can be understandably interpreted as a sign that while Americans care about campaign finance reform, most can be sufficiently distracted from it on Election Day that they won’t punish politicians who block it.
2) They need to pay more attention to our Supreme Court judges
Although more than three out of four Americans want to limit the amount wealthy individuals and groups can spend on elections, they generally approve of how the Supreme Court is doing its job, even though the conservative majority on that bench has done everything in its power to allow the rich to continue controlling our political process.
The Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2010 made it legal for corporations and unions to spend as much money as they want on advertisements and other political tools to defeat specific candidates, provided only that they don’t donate that money directly to other candidates. In the McCutcheon vs Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2014, they declared the FEC’s biennial limit on campaign contributions was unconstitutional, effectively allowing single donors to spend as much as $3.5 million on candidates, PACs (Political Action Committees), and political parties.
While it would be bad enough if the problem was simply that five of our nine Supreme Court judges had an out-of-touch stance on this issue, the stench of corruption permeates their rulings on campaign finance reform.
A year after the Citizens United ruling, Common Cause (a liberal nonprofit group that focuses on creating more transparency in American politics) filed a petition with the Obama administration in 2011 that accused Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas of “participat[ing] in political strategy sessions, perhaps while the case was pending, with corporate leaders whose political aims were advanced by the decision.” They specifically pointed to a retreat hosted by Koch Industries, in which Scalia and Thomas were featured speakers, as well as the work of Thomas’ wife as founder and CEO of the conservative advocacy group, Liberty Central.
3) They need to find creative ways of using the Internet to empower less wealthy candidates
It is often forgotten that Americans have been using advances in technology to spread political ideals on the grassroots level since the days when our republic was in its infancy. Our national postal service, which was established in 1775 to facilitate communications during the Revolutionary War, became the most extensive in the world after President George Washington signed the Postal Service Act of 1792 into law. He did so in part to help ordinary citizens spread information and politically organize by sending political literature (usually newspapers and pamphlets) through the mail.
In this way, Washington joined many of his fellow founding fathers in believing that the government should help ordinary citizens avail themselves of the latest technological advances (in this case with the printing press, which had been used to great avail in spreading the ideals of the American Revolution) to become more active and empowered citizens.
Just as the postal service was the information superhighway of the late 18th and early 19th century, the Internet is the best vehicle for directly combatting the effects of money in politics today. It already has an equivalent of the Postal Service Act in the High-Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991, which created the National Information Infrastructure and is generally responsible for expanding public access to the Internet and launching the Internet boom of the 1990s. (Notably, its author was a young Senator from Tennessee named Al Gore.)
Numerous studies have found that the Internet has already radically transformed American politics, particularly by empowering ordinary individuals to express ideas and mobilize as never before, whether on the right (such as the Tea Party) or the left (such as the grassroots movement that elected and reelected Barack Obama).
Yet the medium is capable of doing so much more. At a time when the cost of campaigning has skyrocketed out of most Americans’ reach due to transportation and advertising needs, the Internet offers a fertile ground for potential candidates who don’t have the money to buy air time or personally stump from town-to-town. For that potential to be realized, however, Americans need to make a point of paying attention to Internet-only candidacies. Instead of clinging to old-fashioned notions of how politicking should occur (door-to-door canvassing, renting space to deliver speeches, etc.), they should recognize that making these practices a sine qua non for political success limits those without the financial means of doing them.
As such, they should be open to candidates who may only appear on their own websites or through YouTube videos. At a time when public financing of candidates and opening political debates to third parties are widely discussed as ways of curbing the power of big money in our bipartisan system—and not without good reason—it is disappointing that more creativity hasn’t been applied to tapping into the potential of a medium that could render traditionally-financed campaigns and televised debates obsolete altogether.
Thanks to The New York Times, we now know that most Americans support the ideals behind campaign finance reform. They want our democracy to be as open as possible and understand that the corrupting influence of big money is hindering that. To achieve these goals, however, they need to hold politicians and judges accountable for their decisions on issues related to campaign finance reform, as well as change their own way of viewing political campaigns.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].
Photo via c_ambler/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)