America was founded on the principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” in Abraham Lincoln’s memorable words. One and a half centuries after the Gettysburg Address, we wonder what Lincoln would think of the state of the democracy he so passionately defended. With the advent of the Super PAC, the influence of an economically elite minority over our elected officials is drowning out the voice of the people.
With billions of dollars flooding the political system each election cycle, a maverick law professor from Harvard has stepped into the spotlight on this issue. Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday Super PAC is using the very system that’s been corroded by money to buy regular voters a chance to get themselves back in the ring.
Let’s start with the simple definitions. PACs are political action committees that can raise money in amounts up to a few thousand dollars to give directly to candidates running for office. Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals and companies as long as they don’t give their money directly to candidates or campaigns. Instead, the Super PACs largely spend on their own media campaigns— propping up, or attacking, the candidates they choose.
“What we have in the United States is a very complicated system in which people with lots of money are really in control of who represents us,” says Andy Barker, Ben & Jerry’s Social Mission Strategy & Policy Manager. “Super PACs are one way that wealthy people – or corporations - can spend as much as they want to try to elect the candidates they like. In the process, they have a huge influence over which issues our representatives pay attention to.”
Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which declared that spending money on election ads is a form of constitutionally guaranteed free speech, outside election spending increased by a factor of three from 2008 to 2012. The heady part is how much money Super PACs are collecting from so few individuals. With over a billion dollars in outside spending on elections in 2012, 68% of Super PAC funds came from just 216 donors (according to the Center for Responsive Politics). One person alone donated $92.7 million. With this sort of influence over a media campaign, an incredibly small number of people have an enormous impact on the outcome of our federal elections.
“The real problem with Super PACs,” says Barker, “is that they destroy the idea that every citizen gets an equal voice in shaping our government.” Barker points out that recent polls show 73% of Americans, across all political affiliations, want to get big money out of politics.
When you consider the level of public opinion, and start looking at the numbers, it’s truly astounding how this system is still in place. What can we do to right this ship? That’s where Lessig comes in.
“The critical problem is we’ve outsourced the funding of campaigns to the tiniest fraction of the 1%,” Lessig told the online media outlet VOX. Lessig launched his own crowd-funded Super PAC, Mayday, in May 2014 to fight PAC with PAC. Generating $6 million in donations by July 4th, Mayday is now seeking matching funding to generate a pool of $12 million to spend on 2014 elections. Their goal is to target and support federal election candidates that will sign on for serious campaign funding reform— the sort that will do away with big money’s influence on American politics.
If Mayday meets its goals in 2014, more elections will be on the docket in 2016, with the goal of establishing a system of “small dollar funding,” aka “citizen-funded” elections. There’s no shortage of irony in pitting a Super PAC against Super PACs. While media personalities like Steven Colbert launched his own “Colbert Super PAC” to poke fun at the mind-boggling amounts of money being shuffled around the political arena, Barker points out that Lessig has gone much further, actually using a Super PAC to generate comparable donations in support of progressive reform.
“We have to find every way we can to get people to understand how important this issue is,” says Barker, “and how urgent it is that we change it. We love what Mayday is doing,” Barker says, “because it is a creative and smart way to really make progress on returning elections to the people.'
While the current round of crowd funding is closed, you can still click over to https://mayday.us/ to get involved and spread the word. “While you’re at it”, adds Barker, “ask your own candidates where their funding comes from, and how much of it is from small donors.”
Whether you’re taking action on your own, or are supporting Lessig’s version of an anti-Super-PAC, Mayday represents a groundswell of public sentiment against a tiny proportion of our nation using exorbitant amounts of cash to form government in their own image. “A lot of people want this,” Barker says about Getting the Dough Out of Politics. “It’s only a matter time before we’re going to solve this problem.”
BREAKING UPDATE: The U.S. Senate took a big step forward, but fell short of the ultimate goal on September 10, when it mustered 54 votes for a Constitutional amendment that would have overturned Citizens United and allowed for sensible regulation of big money in politics. 67 votes were needed for passage, so advocates for change, including Ben & Jerry’s and Mayday PAC, will have to keep the pressure on these lawmakers. It’s worth noting that the struggle to give women the vote in the U.S. lasted more than 40 years and the 19th Amendment failed several times in Congress before it was finally passed. It took determination to get women into politics a century ago; and it will take determination to get the Dough Out of Politics in our time!