The Democrats need to renounce Political Action Committees and dark money. They should make a public statement announcing that they will go it alone. For their own political conscience. For the good of the country. And for their own electoral success. Speak all you want of a blue wave. Change is the only tide that lasts.
Before we go on, some definitions: When a candidate refuses money from corporate PACs, he or she is refusing what one lawyer described as, “PACs established by corporations and funded by their employees with officers and directors who decide where the funds are directed.” In other words, there is a direct line of influence from corporation to candidate. There are also labor PACs and party leadership PACs—the former receive no money from corporate PACs, while the latter may. And there is a nebulous third category of PACs which are nominally unconnected to corporations, but whose top donors happen to be corporate executives, and are therefore the next best thing. For our purposes, the shorthand “PAC” will refer to any PAC with prominent ties to corporate money. (And it should go without saying that Dems should vehemently disavow super PACS, the root of campaign finance evil.)
Netroots Nation just ended in New Orleans. The party’s progressive activists rejected Washington’s cowardly calls for appeasement. Ocasio-Cortez urged Democrats to “come home” to the New Deal. Cynthia Nixon said “Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what we do. So we might as well give them the real thing.”
The moment is there. The anvil is ready. Now is the time to strike.
Morality demands it. And the party’s future demands it.
Let’s play a game. In fact, let’s play the oldest game. Let’s play “survival.”
The Dems are physically out of power. On the federal, state, and the local levels. They don’t have control over the basic leverage points of power. Blocking bad laws. Fighting gerrymandering. Protecting against voter suppression.
But that’s not the problem.
The Dems are ideologically out of power. Two years ago, their donor class leaned in hard. The doomed campaign of 2016 was a personification of everything the Nineties Democrats stood for. In practice, and in philosophy. The Dem campaign was technocratic, misinformed, entitled, and clueless. The whole process was powered by an endless flow of corporate money. It was the Charge of the Light Brigade.
And it was thoroughly discredited. The Democratic Party’s “best and brightest” couldn’t win against the Worst Political Candidate in Human History. They lost to a gibbering fantasist who spewed race science that a Confederate general would’ve winced at.
But that’s not the problem.
The problem with the Dem leadership is that they have fixed nothing. A few hand waves, a few refusals to deal with reality, and they rolled up to the donor mill again. The frightened money is seeping back in. Politico noticed:
Corporate PACs are increasing their contributions to several Democrats who are in line to lead powerful committees if their party retakes the House in November, another sign of the burgeoning expectations for Democrats’ showing in the midterms. The uptick comes as tensions grow in the party between lawmakers who rake in money from corporate PACs and the activists who decry such contributions as a corrupting influence.
The Dem leadership won’t stop until they’ve sucked the marrow dry.
The progressives have to cut the ground out from under them.
Ban super-PACs. Ban corporate PACs. Ban dark money.
Our system has always been pimped by big money, but since 2010’s Citizens United ruling, our democracy’s been a one-chuckle joke. According to Open Secrets, since last year, PAC fundraising hit “an all-time high of $2.2 billion, a number that, 20 years earlier, was $450.9 million. Already this cycle PACs have raised $1.2 billion, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.” A follow-up ruling in 2014, McCutcheon v. FEC, took off the limits in how much an individual can donate to PACs.
How can the Democrats decry the one percent … and then turn around and take their money?
There is no part of this debate that ends up well for PAC-loving “progressives.” What argument can you make?
“We have to do do it, to compete with the other side.”
The Dems had the money advantage last time, and Trump beat them. Crowley’s millions were donated by every drug-addled corporate swine in his district. That didn’t save him from the hammer of Ocasio-Cortez.
“That doesn’t matter; campaigns need money.”
Then how do successful campaigns run without corporate donors? Easy. They take money donations from ordinary people. It’s how Obama got started. It’s how Bernie turned the wheels. As Open Secrets reports, “Corporate PAC donations make up just a small percentage of campaign funding for incumbents…”
Say what you will about successful politicians. Many of them aren’t book smart, or magazine smart, or Highlights for Kids smart – or, really, any kind of smart. But what they are is canny. The least of them understand very well how to win elections. Successful pols rarely do anything for solely sentimental reasons. And so in February, when Senators Gillibrand and Booker said, “that they would join at least 10 other members of Congress in rejecting donations from corporate PACs in their upcoming reelection campaigns,” it was not exclusively a decision of principle.
Booker and Gillibrand didn’t do this because they were nice guys. These are not ethically sensitive souls. During her time running for Congress, Gillibrand was bought by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, or as they’re referred to in scientific literature, the Fathers of Darkness. Booker was bought by JP Morgan Chase and Verizon. And both Gillibrand and Booker were purchased by Pfizer, at great cost.
Neither of them are returning the money they’ve already taken, so their morality is suspect. But if ambitious, calculating political machines are willing to swear off corporate PACs, that means something.
Progressive candidates can win without going down on bended knee. In my home state of Texas, the creeping-horror-who-men-call-Ted-Cruz got out-raised by his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
Now, being the best money-seeker in politics is a bit like being the drunkest man in church: is it really a victory? But Beto’s what Texas needs. And his example does us a great service. Corporate money is not necessary, and it is not omnipotent.
If they understand the cost, and they understand the stigma, why do corporate Democrats pursue corporate money?
Simple. PAC money is buyer money. PAC money is easy. PAC money is lazy. PAC money is what people do when they get scared of the unwashed masses, or when they forget what politics is. PAC money is your default state when your politics cater to rich people. Asking lots of people for money is work. Fighting for the public is difficult. Making friends with a billionaire pirate is easier. More glamorous. Soon you’ve got a couple of rich friends. Pretty soon after that, you look around and you’re spending your time with bankers and eh, what’s a subsidy between a few friends?
“You’re being naive to assume we can run the country without big money.”
And you’re naive to assume politicians belong to you if they take donor cash. I assure you a bought pet stays bought.
Bold moves require bold strokes. The Democratic Party is divided into two halves. One part is a progressive side with morality, popular support, and justice behind it. The other half is a grease-spotted sack of hissing carnival reptiles who can only sleep and copulate atop mountains of gold coins. They also have a bad side.
The reptile branch of the party desperately wants corporate money. It’s legitimately the only thing that makes them happy anymore, since global warming is putting a damper on golfing, and George Soros is noticeably withering away month by month.
Even still, the reptile branch of the Dems isn’t entirely lost. They have one god they hold up higher than cash. And that’s survival. The corporate Dems may not want to give up the money, but they want to keep existing.
Rhetorically, everyone in the party is already on board. Everyone claims to want corporate money out of politics. Why not take the next step?
It makes political sense, even if you’re a centrist. The no-PAC pledge would give the Corporate Dems credit for reform. They would score goodwill from the people who right believe Washington is a fever swamp. It would be the greatest feel-good moment for America since the Nuremberg Trials, and would draw in millions of new voters.
More importantly, it would be the first step in stripping money from politics. It wouldn’t require a liberal Supreme Court, or an act of God or Congress or Beyonce. Nor would it mean resurrecting McCain-Feingold, or amending the Constitution. It would require a little courage … and it would give them a hammer to hold over Republican heads forever.
What would it cost them? Not a lot. What would it give them? Congress, the statehouse. And the stained mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue, criminally full and morally empty. There’s a future there, if you have the will to grab it. Drive the money changers from the temple. Renounce corporate PACs.