PACs, Super PACs, and Backpacks: A Democracy Primer

May 24, 2016

A Backpack filled with Ben & Jerry's Pints

We don’t know about you, but we’ve been hearing a lot about PACs in the news recently. And people are talking all the time about super PACs, too, which as far as we can tell, are a lot like PACs except they get to wear capes. Do we have that right?

We totally get backpacks, at least, so that’s something.

Here’s an idea: what if we try to figure all this out together?


PACs vs. Super PACs


Cute Overload

PAC is short for “political action committee.” So that begs the question, “What is a political action committee?” Thanks for asking! A political action committee is an organization created by businesses or unions or some other groups to raise (and spend) money for or against a political candidate. PACs have been around for a while: the first one was organized in 1944 to raise money for FDR’s reelection. Individuals are allowed to give no more than $5000 to a PAC every year, which is an adorable sum, when you think about it.


'Roid Rage

$5000? That’s downright cute compared to the unlimited heaps of cash you’re allowed to shovel into the gaping Pac-Man-like maw of a super PAC. As the name suggests, super PACs are PACs on steroids (we uncovered nothing about capes in our research, sadly). Created in 2010 after a federal court ruling, which followed closely the Supreme Court’s Citizens United debacle, super PACs can raise unlimited sums of money (from people, groups, corporations, unions, etc.) and then spend unlimited sums for or against candidates. According to, as of May 15, 2016, super PACs have taken in $710,586,218 and spent $301,953,364 so far this election cycle, which does seem like a lot of money, doesn’t it?


Nothing to See Here

If super PACs seem just a little bit anti-democratic, what with how they allow the ultra-rich to hijack elections, well, don’t worry, because unlike PACs, super PACs are NOT allowed to give money directly to candidates or coordinate with the campaigns or candidates they support. Of course… in reality, it’s hard to see what difference that almost-impossible-to-enforce rule even makes. Candidates and their big-bank-rolling funders can nudge and wink all they want, while those unlimited funds keep flowing in and out, burying opponents in negative ads and shouting down the voices of ordinary people.


Super PACs vs. Backpacks


Birth of the Backpack

Which brings us to backpacks. While most of us don’t have a super PAC, it’s safe to say, almost everyone has had a backpack at some point in their lives. Seems like they’ve been around forever, but the first backpack was designed not long before that original FDR PAC hit the scene. The story goes that Gerry Cunningham, owner of Gerry Outdoors in Boulder, Colorado, was dissatisfied with the rucksacks available at the time, so in 1938 he made his own… with zippered compartments! He was also responsible for the next leap in backpack evolution, almost 30 years later. Gerry discarded canvas and started using the lighter and more durable nylon. And the rest is history…


Pay to Play

Larry David, playing Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live, once said, “I don't have a super PAC. I don’t even have a backpack.” That got us thinking: how much super PAC cash could you fit in a backpack? True, that depends in part on the size of the backpack, but let’s be totally clear: since super PAC donations are unlimited, it stands to reason that, theoretically, you would never have enough to hold it all… But with boxer Floyd Mayweather’s help, we can at least visualize what the $$$ raised so far in 2016 might look like. If $1 million fits into one standard-size backpack, then you would need approximately 711 of them to stash all that sweet super PAC cash—which does seem like a lot of backpacks, doesn’t it?

You Can Take It With You

It must be nice to tote that kind of money around, but while super PAC funds have to be used for political spending, backpacks can be used for pretty much anything. We don’t know about you, but we think our democracy and the country overall would be much better off investing in backpacks instead of super PACs. We did our own research on this subject: turns out you can fit about 10 pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream into a typical backpack. And when you think about it, is there anything else anybody—even the politicians—really needs?