Posted: March 18th, 2023
With our national election cycle reaching its quadrennial fervor, filled with frenzied campaigning and feverish advertising blitzes, American citizens are once again charged with the enormous task of deciding upon their next leadership class. What began with our forefather’s modest experiment in democratic governance, built upon a foundation of informed citizenry selecting candidates who best represented shared values on the relevant issues of the day, has since become slowly distorted by the pernicious influence of corporatized campaign funding. The American political apparatus has traditionally been the arena of the affluent, because “like almost every pursuit in this free-enterprise country, political campaigning is a business & #8230; and, as in many businesses, success often goes not to the entrepreneur who brings a product to market first but to the one who exploits it best” (McManus, 2010). While candidates on the local, state and federal level have always been beholden to major donors, modern elections were forever transformed from contests of relative merit to proverbial spending sprees after the notorious decision delivered by the Supreme Court in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This landmark 5-4 ruling, made along strictly partisan lines in 2008, reversed more than a century of law regarding electioneering communication and essentially declared that the First Amendment’s explicit guarantee of free speech necessarily protected the unlimited political expenditures made by corporations, Â§ 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, and labor unions. The resulting injection of corporate and private capital into the presidential election, exemplified by the creation of so-called Super PACs, or political action committees, and the emergence of billionaire benefactors like William Adelson and the Koch brothers, has altered the modern political landscape as to make it nearly unrecognizable. With the presidential campaign now controlled from afar by a cabal of wealthy financiers, the priority for voters in individual states like California should remain the preservation of their own political power through the passage of legislation which restricts rulings like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission from being repeated.
When billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson casually declared his intention to purchase the presidency of the United States, telling Forbes magazine in 2012 “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to influence elections. But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it,” (Bertoni), he brazenly signaled the beginning of a new era in American politics. Adelson’s braggadocio was backed up by cold cash soon afterwards, when he famously funneled more than $20 million to Newt Gingrich’s failed foray into the Republican presidential primary. Although this particular attempt to manipulate major elections ultimately proved to be unsuccessful when Gingrich bowed out in favor of Mitt Romney, the ramifications of such unbridled campaign financing are far reaching for residents of large and densely populated states such as California. After the race for the White House has been decided in November, the jockeying for position within Sacramento’s state political hierarchy will begin in earnest. Major donors like Adelson, his fellow conservatives David and Charles Koch, and the reputed liberal political patron George Soros will undoubtedly use the legal loopholes opened by the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision to tilt Californian elections to suit their ideological whims. Unless proactive policymaking is engaged in by a consensus of pragmatic local politicians, California’s election cycle could easily become as contrived and commercialized as the blockbuster films for which the state is so famed.
California has maintained a strong tradition of enacting and enforcing local legislation restricting the abuse of campaign financing, and as current Republican Vice Presidential Paul Ryan noted in 2003 article published by the National Civic Review, “the Los Angeles public financing program upheld by Johnson v. Bradley has served as a model for programs in the California cities of Long Beach, Petaluma, Oakland and San Francisco” (Ryan, 6). By preserving the last shred of integrity inherent to our democratic system of representation, campaign finance reforms based upon prudent public financing laws stand as a crucial check on the rampant expansion of corporate influence on open political campaigns. The terrible temptation of unrestrained access to unlimited capital is embodied by Ryan himself, who stated soberly in 2003 that “public financing & #8230; enables qualified individuals who lack personal wealth or access to wealthy donors to run a competitive campaign and win public office, (and) reduces candidate dependence on special interest donors, making elected officials more accountable to the constituents they represent” (3). Despite these lofty proclamations, Ryan soon embraced the culture of corporate subsidization, and today his presidential ticket alongside multimillionaire Mitt Romney is backed largely by Adelson and the Koch brothers, while Ryan himself has amassed “more than $5.4 million in his campaign account, about $2 million more than the next highest House member, according to Federal Election Commission data” (Bykowicz & Salant) through the backing of major banking institutions. As the full fledged monetization of a formerly sensible politician like Paul Ryan clearly demonstrates, simply adhering to and advocating for public financing legislation does not represent a sufficient bulwark against the onslaught of corporate influence in our political system.
Bertoni, Steven. “Billionaire Sheldon Adelson Says He Might Give $100M To Newt Gingrich Or
Other Republican.” Forbes. 22 Feb 2012: n. page. Web. 15 Sep. 2012.
Bykowicz, Julie, and Jonathan Salant . “Ryan Ranks as Top House Fundraiser With Backing by Banks.” Bloomberg. 11 Aug 2012: n. page. Web. 17 Sep. 2012.
Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010).
Kalanick, Cory. “Blowing Up the Pipes: The Use of (c)(4) to Dismantle Campaign Finance
Reform.” Minnesota Law Review. 95.2254 (2011): 2254-2284. Print.
Li, Chen. “Public Funding After Davis vs. FEC: Is Campaign Finance Reform in the States Still
Legally Viable?” Civil Rights Law Journal. 20.2 (2010): 279-314. Print.
McManus, Doyle. “Republicans’ secret formula — 501(c)(4).” Los Angeles Times 21 Oct 2010,
n. pag. Web. 17 Sep. 2012. .
Ryan, Paul. “Beyond BCRA: Cutting-Edge Campaign Finance Reform at the Local Government
Level.” National Civic Review. 92.1 (2003): 3-18. Print.
Spencer, Andrew. “Cleaning Elections.” Arizona Law Review. 54.277 (2012): 277-309. Print.
Udall, Tom. “Amend the Constitution To Restore Public Trust in the Political System: A
Practitioner’s Perspective on Campaign Finance Reform.” Yale Law and Policy Review.
29.235 (2010): 235-252. Print.
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