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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2014/05/michigan-races-funded-by-outside-billionaires/

Phil's column

Phil Power is founder and chairman
of the Center for Michigan.

Michigan races, funded by outside billionaires

Given what’s happening to our politics, I’m proposing adding two new words to the language:

1) “Poligarch: n. A member of a small governing faction comprised of individuals of great wealth.”

2) “Poligarchy: n. 1. Government by a few, esp. by a small faction of persons or families possessed of great wealth. 2. A state governed by a poligarchy.”

Anybody who’s looked at TV in the last few weeks has already seen a fusillade of political television ads, most of them focused on the races for governor and U.S. Senate – races in which the primaries are meaningless, and the general election is nearly half a year away. What’s significant about these ads is that many are bought and paid for by “super PACs,” national Political Action Committees located outside Michigan, almost always funded by very wealthy donors. Thanks to the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, they can give unlimited amounts of money.

Thanks to an outrageously bad law passed by the Michigan legislature last year, the identity of many of those donors is secret – and the public has no way of knowing who is funding these ads.

What we do know is the amounts spent on televised propaganda – on behalf of both Republicans and Democrats – is breathtaking. Consider these expenditures so far this year, figures courtesy of Rich Robinson, who heads the nonpartisan and nonprofit watchdog group, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network:

  • Money spent on behalf of Terri Lynn Land, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate: Americans for Prosperity, $3,378,000; Freedom Partners, $523,000; U. S. Chamber, $326,000. The amount spent by Ms. Land’s own campaign to to date is $884,000, just 17 percent of the total.
  • Spending on behalf of Gary Peters, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate: Senate Majority PAC: $1,120,000. The congressman’s own senate campaign reports spending $1,134,000, about equal to the super PAC.
  • Spending on behalf of Gov. Rick Snyder, Republican candidate for Governor: Republican Governors Association: $1,509,000. Snyder’s campaign reports spending $666,000, less than half of combined “independent” PAC spending.

And, of course, this is just the beginning; when it comes to spending on these races, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Republicans are almost certain to spend more – but Democratic-leaning billionaire Tom Steyer’s Next Gen Climate fund, designed to make climate change/global warming the key issue this year, plans on spending $50 million on four U.S. Senate races, including the Michigan contest. These numbers signify an enormous change in the ways politics now work in this country. In the old days, the local political parties (plus the candidates themselves) raised and spent the bulk of the money in a given race.

People in that particular state determined the issues to be debated and the positions candidates took, always trying to find ways to make their messages relevant to local voters.

You knew who was backing whom. But today, unchecked, unelected, out-of-state, anonymous super PAC spending more and more threatens to overwhelm local party efforts.

Overwhelm them, and make them irrelevant. Local parties no longer control the dominant messaging in political campaign. Instead, a few highly motivated billionaires, often very ideological, are increasingly in a position to dominate political discourse in this country.

Campaign finance expert Robinson put it well: “These days, candidates are bystanders at their own campaigns.” Regardless of party, established Michigan political leaders don’t like what’s going on. “It’s now the tail wagging the dog,” says Michigan Democratic Chair Lon Johnson. “I’m very worried we’re moving toward a version of oligarchy,” a senior GOP strategist who preferred to remain unnamed told me, “This is a fundamental change. It’s opening the door to the nationalization of politics.”

Both political leaders agreed that campaigns in the past had to mainly focus on issues relevant to Michigan voters. But an out-of-state billionaire couldn’t care less. It’s his money, his ideology, his issues. “Politics is being reduced to something very much like selling corn flakes,” the GOP strategist told me.

For many years, the core rule of politics was best intoned by former U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill: “All politics is local.” What that gruff old Boston Irishman meant was that at the end of the day, all political decisions came back to what local voters felt about issues and candidates.

But today, a few highly motivated billionaires are turning Tip’s iron rule on its head. The political process – especially messaging to the mass electorate through advertising – is coming under the entirely disproportionate influence of a small, remote, highly motivated group of the super-rich. To return to my new words, they’re poligarchs, and I’m afraid we’re moving into an era of poligarchy.

Unless we can somehow fix this, God help our country.

13 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Jarrett Skorup

    “What’s significant about these ads is that many are bought and paid for by ‘super PACs,’ national Political Action Committees located outside Michigan, almost always funded by very wealthy donors. Thanks to the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, they can give unlimited amounts of money.”

    Citizens United had nothing to do with wealthy individuals spending unlimited money on politics – they could always do that. Remember Swift Boat Veterans For Truth?

    It had to do with groups of people pooling their money to spend on politics. More specifically, though this is long forgotten, it had to do with overturning parts of an outrageous law that prevented a video criticizing a politician from airing within a few months of an election.

    1. Donna Hummer

      Citizens United did however,remove the ban on corporations and unions using their funds for direct advocacy.Money now equals speech.

  2. Barbara Suhay

    Yes, outside interests (out-of-state) are involved in local elections including ballot issues, especially those that involve raising taxes. Voters received robocalls and mailings from such states as Iowa in Birmingham’s Baldwin Public Library’s bond issue vote.

    Barbara H.

  3. Rich Robinson

    Poligarchy is correct. The interests of the poligarchs are served. Those of most residents are slighted. Consider that Michigan’s success in K-12 education is slipping, higher education is increasingly unaffordable, our transportation infrastructure is crumbling in some areas and underdeveloped in others, and the State has reneged on revenue sharing with local governments, who have been forced to cut essential services, including public works and public safety. On the other hand, the tax environment for the most successful among us has never been more favorable.

    It is high time for our political machinery to respond to the needs of the many, not just those can bully their way to public policies through anonymous campaign spending. Transparency is inoculation against corruption. It is absolutely essential that we develop a system of transparency and accountability when it comes to money in Michigan politics.

  4. Jim Shiflett

    Regardless of the money, we can still mute the TV spend more time talking with candidates.

  5. Charles Richards

    “Thanks to an outrageously bad law passed by the Michigan legislature last year, the identity of many of those donors is secret – and the public has no way of knowing who is funding these ads.” Why would the identity of those donors matter? What significant information would that give a voter? Take Tom Steyer’s Next Gen Climate fund. How would knowing his name help a voter in evaluating the commercial’s message? If an individual thought that preventing global warming was wiser policy than adapting to its effects, why would his identity or economic interest, if any, be relevant? All the voter needs to do is evaluate the message presented to him. Admittedly, people lead busy lives and don’t have much time, or inclination, to be well informed and, instead, make decisions based on who the advocate is rather than the merits of the issue, but does that result in wise decisions?

    Mr. Power makes much of knowing who supports who, but is that wise? There have been numerous cases of economic or personal retaliation against people or organizations on the basis of who or what they supported or opposed. Proposition 8, concerning same sex marriage, in California resulted in black lists being created from public campaign finance records. Does Mr. Power approve?

    “In the old days, the local political parties (plus the candidates themselves) raised and spent the bulk of the money in a given race.” There was a time (prior to campaign finance “reform”) when political parties did raise the money for political campaigns. But with the introduction of limits on how much individuals could give to parties they can no longer raise the funds required. That requires candidates to turn to other sources. And it was not the case that campaigns for Senators and Representatives were local, homegrown affairs. National parties exercised considerable influence on those races.

    “The political process – especially messaging to the mass electorate through advertising – is coming under the entirely disproportionate influence of a small, remote, highly motivated group of the super-rich.” The Supreme Court has never ruled that such a situation is grounds for infringing on the First Amendment. It is not acceptable to limit someone’s speech on the grounds that other people are not as eloquent, articulate, or cannot speak as loudly. The only grounds for limiting speech, that the Supreme Court has accepted, is to avoid corruption, or the appearance of corruption. Does Mr. Power think that the quality of our policy making has improved since the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms?

    Mr. Power approvingly quotes Tip O’Neill’s saying that “All politics is local.” He says, “What that gruff old Boston Irishman meant was that at the end of the day, all political decisions came back to what local voters felt about issues and candidates.” That is still true today, but that is not what Tip meant. He meant that Senators and Representatives were elected on the basis of what they could do in the local voters’ particular, immediate interest. That was not a good way to make national policy.

    Mr. Power implies that we are living in an oligarchy, run by, and for the benefit of a few. Yet the bottom fifth of the population receives three times as much in government benefits as they earn in income. The middle quintile receives one dollar in government benefits for every five dollars of market income. The top one percent receives one dollar in benefits for every $150 in market income. Does that sound like an oligarchy?

    1. Robert Kleine

      You comment about government benefits is off target. Social Security and Medicare account for 68% of govt. transfers. First, I do not see how the existence of these programs for seniors proves that the rich do not have more influence than the poor. Second, these benefits are of course a larger share of a low income persons income than a wealthy persons income. A Social Security payment of $25,000 is equal to 50% of the income of a person making $50,000 a year and 10% of the income of a person earning $250,000 a year. What does this have to do with influence?

    2. Joseph Zainea

      Charles Richards goes to great lengths to defend the indefensible; i.e. the secrecy surrounding the identities of the super wealthy who are increasingly taking over our politics. Why the defensiveness? Because he and the Republican legislators who approved the veil of secrecy are afraid that when the donors are identified by name they may scurry away; not wishing to be identified with ads that are less than truthful or abusive towards someone’s character.

      Knowing the identity of such donors is important because it tells voters whether or not a special interest has something more at stake than just the welfare of the body politic. There’s an old saying in the world of golf; “every swing of the club makes someone smile”. Multi-million dollar ad campaigns are a lot of swings. While money has been equated with speech, voters are entitled to know who’s speaking; and ……. who’s smiling.

  6. Gene Markel

    Unanswered Questions:
    Does the candidate who raises the most money win the election? Does the candidate who has the best staff for media influence and PR win the the election? What do those who contribute vast somes of money expect in return? What do staffers expect in return for their contribution to a win? Is the politician beholding to do the bidding of the wealthy contributor? Is the politicaian obligated to appoint those staffers to positions of power? What is the politicians obiugations to the voter who placed him or her in office? How important is it to the politician to be reelected?

  7. Duane

    It appears Mr. Power has built his political perspective on an idea that has hardened into stone, ‘money’. ‘Money’ has become so loud he can’t hear any other ideas. He only sees that campaign (candidates or political positions) money as ‘bad’ and government spending other people’s money as ‘good’. Has he ever talked about campaigns and people’s choices without complaining of money?

    Mr. Power seems to believe that Michigan voters are so weak minded that they follow where the ‘money’ says, so he wants the ‘money’ stopped. This creates an impression of an ‘elitist’, as if he is one of a few that know how things should be done and no one else should have a choice. He projects a belief that his podium on Bridge is a ‘right’, 1st Amendment, while those who don’t have such a podium shouldn’t have the ‘right’ to spend their money so others can hear their views. Has he ever engaged in a conversation created by his articles, has he/Bridge made any effort to draw ideas from the readers in an open conversation?

    Mr. Power has been involve in creating a tools, Bridge and ‘community conversations’, with great potential to open up conversations, draw in the public, seek out new and innovative ways to address persistent problems/issues and yet it seems only interested is to tell the public how to think and act.
    Michigan voters have changed it is disappoint how few that are willing to accept and adapt to the changes.

  8. Barry

    We don’t need new words to describe the ownership of government by the few wealthy. The Greeks did it over 3000 years ago. Plutarch/Plutocracy, Oligarch/Oligarchy.

  9. Barbara

    “A lot of people are on board with the idea of limiting the role of money in shaping political outcomes. And now one Harvard professor wants to do something about it by, strangely enough, asking for money.

    Lawrence Lessig is a law and ethics professor at Harvard, and serves on a number of boards, for organizations like MapLight and the Sunlight Foundation that work to provide greater transparency in government financing. But he has decided to take his fight for greater equality in campaign finance one step further buy building a super PAC to essentially get rid of super PACs. You know, a bit like buying a gun to support gun control or getting married to someone of the same gender to protest gay marriage. Exactly like that.

    The MayDay PAC, launched on May 1, has already raised over $1 million ahead of their June 1 crowdfunding deadline. To give you a sense, the huge Ready for Hillary super PAC has raised $6 million in the past year and a half.” – From inthecapital.com

    I donated to MayDay PAC – I suggest others who want to see changes in our elections donate as well.

  10. Ken McFarlane

    Barry nailed it. We are living in an oligarchy.

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