What’s So Bad About a SuperPAC?

FEC Colbert Super PAC

Or, how I came to love the (money) bomb

Celebrated intellectual property lawyer and Harvard professor Larry Lessig writes at Medium:

The single most important change in American politics today is not the rise of Internet-driven, small-dollar contributions. It is the SuperPAC. The Net may have fueled Obama in 2008. (It almost gave us Howard Dean in 2004.) But all that is old school now — completely professionalized and, in the end, not the most important. What is important is the big contributions, not the small.

What is important is not Paypal, but a brand new version of a very old game — pay to play.

It astonishes me that this is a controversial statement. But it is. After 2012, many pundits declared that SuperPACs didn’t matter. Things in 2013 looked much as they did in 2012. And anyway, as speech absolutists on the right and left insist, all SuperPACs do is enable more political speech. What could possibly be bad about that? Who in America is against free speech? And who would dare to suggest that in America, “free speech” — especially political speech — should be regulated?

What’s clear is that we’re confused about just why SuperPACs are a problem. But once we unpack that confusion, the poison that SuperPACs spill into our democracy will be obvious, and the urgency of reforming them should be clear.

The Path to SuperPAC ‘Democracy’

In 1976, the Supreme Court declared that the First Amendment gave rich people the right to spend however much they wanted to influence political elections — so long, at least, as that influence was “independent” of a political campaign.

Most rich people didn’t get the memo. Although even then, the number of super-wealthy in America was great (nowhere close to today, but still), the number who chose to use their money to influence campaigns was tiny.

The reason is pretty obvious once you think about the social dynamic. There’s something embarrassing — for any of us, rich and not alike — about spending money to move your ideas to the front of the line. For the rich recognize what most of us are thinking: Who are you to tell us who we should vote for? Why would you know any better then I? Sure, if you’re Jeff Bezos, we’d love to know your views about how to make the Postal Service work better. But why would we care what you think about climate change? Or the increasing use of antibiotics in agriculture?

The rich get this, and, in the main, they stayed silent. There were important exceptions, of course — dramatic exceptions. In 2004, using the device du jour, the “527,” both liberals (George Soros and Peter Lewis) and conservatives (T. Boone Pickens) entered the presidential campaign in an aggressive way. But on the whole, large independent expenditures by the super-wealthy didn’t matter that much to the way American politics progressed. The freedom of the rich to speak as loudly as they want thus seemed a small price to pay for the benefits of a simple and strong First Amendment. Few like the Nazis marching in Skokie, just like few like to be lectured by billionaires. But if these are the costs of a system of free speech, so be it…

[continues at Medium]

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  • aaron

    Super PACs are nothing more than a legalized money laundering organization.

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