American voters, and the political establishment, take for granted the often enormous injections of cash to political candidates to support their campaigns. Donations to candidates, parties and interest groups are made by average Americans, offering a few dollars online, right through to the richest men (they are usually men) in the country writing massive cheques to shady interest groups.
It's the latter category of donors that, in just a matter of weeks, have transformed this year's mid-term elections from already competitive political races to an ugly free-for-all. And, as in the past, it is Democrats who are suffering most from misleading television attack ads.
The vehicles carrying these political weapons of mass destruction over the airwaves are so-called “Super PACs” (super “political action committees”). These entities, formed with innocuous sounding names like “We Love USA”, are essentially slush funds used to fund negative attack television advertisements against some of the most vulnerable candidates for office.
Super PACs are the outcome of two supreme court decisions, which gutted regulations designed to protect the democratic process. In effect, the court lifted congressional restrictions on the amounts that could be funnelled into politics by corporations, special interests, millionaires and, indeed, billionaires. The law they cited as justification for their decision is unimpeachable — the first amendment of the constitution protecting free speech. Their decision is not.
These regulations had been put in place by congress after the devastating effects of downright untruthful ads that had been run against John Kerry in his campaign for President. A Republican-linked group named “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” managed to destroy his candidacy by falsely accusing Kerry of accepting undeserved military honours for his multiple tours of service in Vietnam.
Such groups are back with a vengence. Suddenly, in the last two weeks, Super PACs have outspent Democratic candidates at a rate of three to one.
Karl Rove, formerly Bush's chief strategist, claims to have amassed a war chest of $52 million to throw against Democratic candidates. Eighty million dollars in total has so far been unleashed by barely-monitored organisations, five times the amount spent at this point in the last mid-term elections. And throwing they are, spending millions already on misleading advertisements attacking vulnerable candidates across the country. And again, these Republican attack ads have no problem with downright lying.
But the inaccuracies are just one dimension of the Super PAC effect. Donations supporting political candidates are not new. But until now, America was heading in the right direction: towards a more equal and democratic way of funding campaigns.
President Obama funded his campaign mainly by building a real grassroots movement — people young and old, rich and poor, who donated small amounts in a joint effort to support the candidate who would bring hope, change and progress. That was, in itself, progress, bringing more Americans than ever before into the election-funding mechanism.
Super PACs, however, are propelled mainly by unfathomably large donations from a very few people. For example, Rove's group, “American Crossroads”, received $ 2 million from Chief Oil and Gas chief executive officer Trevor Reese and billionaire Robert Routing, the owner of Omni Hotels.
And those are the rich men we know about. In the last mid-terms, the vast majority of money spent by outside interests was disclosed along with donors' identities. During this election, that number is less than half of that total. So the question is this: should a tiny, secretive club of the richest in the nation be allowed to fund massive coordinated attacks?
Clearly, the answer is no. After these elections, for the sake of argument, let's assume a Republican victory in the mid-terms, the US is going to have to pose itself a question. Do we want the same dynamic going into a presidential election?
With the amount of money available — and the propensity for inaccurate, vicious attacks so great — the risk of President Barack Obama being “swiftboated” seems enormous.
Who knows what angle Super PACs could take to bring down the first black president. Perhaps they will fuel the myth that Obama was not born in America. Or perhaps they'll “accuse” him of being Muslim.
Either way, one thing is clear: congress — which can still counteract the supreme court decision — needs to act to bring down this most pernicious force in American politics. If it does not, the next election risks being nothing less than a farce — barely an exercise in banana republic democracy.