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