Wisconsin just got a big dose of what the U.S. Supreme Court wrought by its ruling in the Citizens United case torturing the meaning of the First Amendment to allow unlimited election spending by corporations and other wealthy interests. In this summer's senate recall elections, we were treated to $44 million worth of "free" speech.
Over three-quarters of that money was not spent by the candidates in the nine recall races, but rather by a vast array of interest groups that sponsored their own advertising and mounted their own campaigns to influence the elections. Candidates raised and spent record sums of money – indeed, three different candidates broke the previous record for spending by a state legislative candidate – and yet the candidates were outspent on the order of 4 to 1 by outside groups.
As a result, the candidates in these races were barely heard from. The vast majority of campaign messages that voters saw and heard came not from those who were seeking to represent those voters, but rather from special interest surrogates. I call them "outside" groups because that's what they are. They have names that make them sound homegrown, but they are anything but.
The biggest spender for the Democrats was We Are Wisconsin, which reported spending over $10.7 million on the recall elections. It also reported receiving $10.1 million to fuel that spending from just three national unions based in Washington, D.C. – $5.8 million from the AFL-CIO, $3 million from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and $1.3 million from Service Employees International Union. Some Wisconsin-based unions also kicked in, as did some state residents, but the big money came from outside our borders.
The biggest spender on the Republican side was Wisconsin Club for Growth, which did not disclose either its recall election spending or its sources of income. But we do know that Club for Growth outspent We Are Wisconsin on television advertising by more than 18 percent, according to ad invoices shared with us by TV stations across the state and in the Twin Cities market. And we were able to find two of the group's sources of income by scouring IRS records – a $250,000 donation from Texas oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and a $150,000 contribution from the global securities firm Citadel, which has offices in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, London and Hong Kong.
What we are left with are auctions rather than elections. The candidates are bystanders, barely able to get a word in edgewise, watching from the balcony with the rest of us as phony front groups doing the bidding of faraway business tycoons and union bosses command center stage, exercising rights bestowed on them by the highest court in the land under a radically redefined First Amendment to instruct us how to vote.
One problem with the prohibitively expensive speech that passes for First Amendment expression in modern political campaigns is obvious. The end product is a bunch of elected officials who are seen as bought. Owned. Hopelessly beholden. Corrupt. With each passing election, fewer and fewer people have much hope that the representatives who are elected will actually represent them.
That cancer alone is reason enough for major surgery on the way elections are financed. But there is another malignancy that is more difficult to see but is deadly to democracy just the same. In real elections, voters need to hear directly from those seeking to represent them. In the auctions we have now, candidates are rarely heard from. Shadowy surrogates tell us what to think of these people we are expected to elect.
Voters do not get to know the people who will become elected officials. They only know caricatures of those people, caricatures created by anonymous manipulators who have a great deal to gain by distorting the images presented to the electorate.
This political carcinoma inevitably metastasizes. One of the ways the spreading disease manifests itself is in campaigning that is akin to a drive-by shooting. When candidates are speaking in their own voices, they run the risk of voter backlash if they take the low road and smear their opponents. But when outside groups do most all of the talking, there is no way for voters to hold anyone accountable for dragging campaigns down in the gutter. They are not on the ballot, so they can spin and twist the truth with impunity. They can lie outright. They can engage in character assassination. And they face no prospect of punishment from voters.
This is what you get when you have special interest telethons and bystander candidates at election time. Vomit-inducing political discourse. Public officials who are almost universally despised. An anything-but-United States of America.