Our nation's Founding Fathers would be horrified.
This summer, there were nine Wisconsin state senate recall elections. For the record, two of the Republicans facing recalls lost, the other Republicans and all the Democrats survived. Setting aside the issues related to those recalls, it is disturbing to see how the "democratic process" worked in these elections.
Approximately $35 - $40 million was spent in these nine races, counting money spent by the candidates as well as the "independent expenditures" and election-related "issue ads," according to the nonpartisan watchdog group, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Of that amount, spending by the candidates totaled $5.6 million, only a seventh of the total. Outside groups trying to influence the elections spent the remaining $30 to $35 million on top of what they contributed directly to the candidates!
That's a lot of money, averaging about $4 million in each of those legislative races, in campaigns where candidates normally spend thousands of dollars, not millions.
Little of that money was used to spell out the candidate's vision or ideas on how to improve the lives of Wisconsin voters. Instead, it was spent on attack ad followed by attack ad, accusing the other side of ugly things.
One State Senator, Alberta Darling, ran ads accusing her Democratic opponent, State Rep. Sandy Pasch, of voting to allow tax money to pay for Viagra for public employees, even though Rep. Pasch didn't vote to do so, and the Wisconsin Assembly didn't even take up the issue. Honesty doesn't matter. Nor does fairness.
Nor does it matter that much of the $4 million spent in each of those senate races came from special interests and individuals who don't even live in the state, let alone live in those districts.
David and Charles Koch, the billionaire businessmen, neither of whom live in Wisconsin, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars through their organization, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), to influence the elections. Democracy was clearly not their goal: AFP sent out absentee ballot applications to thousands of households urging people to send in their absentee ballots "by August 11" – two days after the election! A spokesman for AFP claimed that using August 11 instead of 9 was "just a typo," not an attempt to disenfranchise voters.
This is a hostile takeover of our democracy. These wealthy individuals and interest groups have an enormous impact on who runs for office and what issues are raised. Their money is the biggest single determinant of who wins. After the elections, the elected officials enact their agenda. Wealthy contributors rule, not the voters.
When James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers were designing our democracy, they undoubtedly expected hardball politics, but they could not have intended that corporations, wealthy individuals, and interest groups dump unlimited amounts into campaigns, dwarfing any efforts local voters make to choose who governs them.
The founding fathers envisioned a vibrant debate encompassing a broad range of perspectives; a democracy where competing ideas could be brought forth and debated so the people could elect representatives based on their will.
But in recent years, the Supreme Court has given corporations and wealthy donors the ability to quash the debate. In a recent case overturning Arizona's anti-corruption campaign finance reforms, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected parts of the law which he said were intended to "level the playing field" by providing more campaign funds to candidates against heavily-funded opponents. Roberts wrote, "in a democracy, campaigning for office is not a game.”
I agree that democracy is not a game, but Chief Justice Roberts and the court have created a campaign system that is rigged, whether or not one sees it as a game, so those with the money win.
Jefferson and Madison envisioned a democracy in which people – voters – were in charge of their government. They would be horrified to see the billionaire Koch brothers and their corporate allies making plans to spend $88 million to sway the 2012 elections. They would be appalled to see our government for sale to the highest bidder.
The founding fathers had a great idea – a government where "we the people" rule. Now that their idea has been corrupted by money, it's time to amend the constitution – a difficult task to be sure, but a necessary one – to restore our democracy and put a "Not for Sale" sign on our government.