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According to a recent report in the magazine Politico, high-ranking Democrats are now energetically wooing big-money donors in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. It appears that the moral reservations expressed not so long ago by some Democratic leaders have ebbed, and that plans are already underway to consolidate their funding infrastructure for the future.
Even in the mercurial world of politics, the pronounced softening on big money is a notable reversal. In January 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled that political action committees (known as super PACs) could accept unlimited donations to fund advertising campaigns, President Obama went immediately on the offensive, castigating the Court’s decision as a threat to democracy.
Positioning himself as the defender of “average Americans” against (Republican) big money, he described the Supreme Court’s “devastating” decision as a “major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Obama’s angry lament played into a tried and effective Democratic strategy: whatever their personal wealth and elite connections—and Obama certainly has both, if not to the extent of super-rich politicians like Senator John Kerry and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—Democrats have always declared themselves to be on the side of ordinary working Americans and against the unscrupulous rich.
Like much in the Democratic playbook, Obama’s self-righteous complaint about the rising tide of big money in politics told a certain truth, but it did not tell the whole truth, and the story of Democrats’ moral posturing about money illuminates the hypocrisy and deception at the heart of the party’s most cherished self-image.
It is true that in 2010, Republican super PACs outspent their Democratic rivals to help shift the balance of power in Congress—with big wins. Divided over tactics, the Democratic response was at first slow. By the end of 2011, according to Scott Neuman of NPR, pro-Democratic groups had amassed nearly $20 million, not enough to compete with the $50 million of pro-Republican groups. It was this significant imbalance that led the Obama team in early 2012 to reverse course publicly, encouraging donors to contribute to the super PACs, especially Priorities USA Action, that were supporting Obama’s re-election campaign. Questioned about the apparent inconsistency, the team insisted that Republicans had forced their hand and that they could not be expected to “unilaterally disarm” while the enemy enjoyed such an advantage.
Bill Burton, the former Obama aide who helped found Priorities USA Action, framed the Democratic embrace of super PACs as a reluctant defensive manoeuvre. Writing on Politico’s “The Arena” forum on February 13, 2012, he commented that rather than watch helplessly “as the candidates we care about and the values we cherish come under wave after wave of assault backed by billionaires in the oil industry,” Democrats were forced to “play by the rules as they are, not as we wish they were.” Obama too, in an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, claimed that he would love to “take some of the big money out of politics,” but simply couldn’t do so in the present electoral landscape.
Throughout 2012, the Democrats saw their super PAC arsenal grow, particularly in October when billionaire George Soros donated 1.5 million to Democratic super PACs. His donation encouraged others in the closing weeks of the campaign, and by the time of the election, Democratic super PACs were drawing nearly even with Republican groups. The New York Times reports that the conservative advantage in outside spending shrank to about 10 percent by the day of the election.
All signs indicate that Democratic super PACs are now an entrenched adjunct of the party. According to Kenneth P. Vogel and Tarini Parti at Politico, the fresh-from-victory Democrats are already preparing for the 2014 and 2016 campaigns. A recent three-day conference of the Democracy Alliance, a George Soros-founded network of deep-pocketed liberals and representatives of outside groups, heard presentations from Nancy Pelosi and Obama campaign officials, who thanked them for past campaign contributions. The question facing Democrats now, it seems, is not whether to solicit super PAC support but how to solicit it most effectively.
Not all present at the Democracy Alliance conference were comfortable with the new direction being taken by an organization that once focused on grassroots activism rather than political advertising. Regardless, the Democratic narrative of higher morality and unwilling (but necessary) accommodation to Republican tactics continues to be broadcast. George Soros has himself declared that his about-face on super PACs came because he couldn’t stomach the Romney campaign’s “openly soliciting the money of the rich to starve the state of the money it needs to provide social services.” Democracy Alliance chairman Rob McKay alleged that he and others remain committed to campaign finance reform, aiming to use big money to “limit the effect of money on our political system” in the future.
At the same time, according to Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, “there is now a sense that we need to compete with super PACS,” and that an increasing number of progressives are comfortable fighting Republicans on their own ground. One new donor interviewed by Politico called super PACs “a reality that I wish would go away” but recognized the necessity of engaging Republicans “on their own terms.”
What all the pious justifications elide, however, is that at the very time that President Obama was lamenting the crippling of democracy by Republican super PACs and then ruefully conceding that his team would fight fire with fire, big money on the left was already playing a decisive role in the American political process—all the more decisive, in fact, because it was so skilfully hidden from public view, cloaked by innocent-seeming philanthropic and social justice mandates. As David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin have shown in their extensively documented The New Leviathan: How the Left-Wing Money Machine Shapes American Politics and Threatens America’s Future (2012), a large and wealthy cross-section of tax-exempt foundations and advocacy groups work in concert with overtly political organizations to influence the outcome of elections; they do so not by campaigning directly for candidates but by working on a variety of cultural, legal, and educational fronts to reshape public policy and mainstream opinion.
Such foundations pursue the neo-Marxist strategy of transforming the culture from the ground up in order to win and maintain power. Claiming to be politically non-aligned by virtue of the fact that they do not lobby for a specific candidate or party—and able to maintain tax-exempt status and donor anonymity for that reason—they nonetheless work to bring about profound political change in American life, targeting everything from national defence to immigration law and social mores. Financed by such high-flyer billionaires as Bill and Melinda Gates, the foundations pack a fiscal wallop that dwarfs the resources available on the conservative side for similar lobbying.
In fact, as Horowitz and Laksin discovered by examining the foundations’ yearly financial statements, left-wing spending outweighs conservative spending by an astonishing ten to one factor. In 2009, progressive funds totaled a hefty 104.56 billion dollars. A single left-leaning philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, had an endowment of over 33 billion, which alone is three times the total of funds accessible to the 75 viable conservative groups. On individual issues, the left swamps its opponents; 117 progressive organizations devoted more than 50% of their programs to supporting open borders and the extension of citizens’ rights to illegal immigrants, with a total of 306.1 million dollars at their disposal. They are opposed by only nine conservative organizations that address immigration, with a comparatively small financial base of 13.8 million.
It seems that when liberals speak of having to play by the big-money rules of conservatives, they conveniently overlook the fact that an avalanche of their own money, far “bigger” than their opponents can command, has been at work for years entrenching left-wing ideas in the culture by stealth, moving ideas from the radical fringes to the centre by dint of insistent repetition and aggressive advocacy. It is worth asking which strategy is more transparent: one in which outside groups fund political advertising campaigns that clearly and unambiguously declare their support for or opposition to a particular candidate or policy? Or one that wages an undeclared war on rival ideas and assumptions through a blizzard of media campaigns, lawsuits, and public school initiatives? If big money has an unfair advantage with voters when they choose their congressional representative, how much more of an unfair advantage does big money have with school children when they are taught about the evil of oil pipelines or the necessity of unions?
The question, then, is this. Which situation is more harmful to democracy: one in which hyperbolic and emotionally-charged political ads clamour for viewers’ attention, or one in which foundation-funded left-wing lawyers obtain the release of terrorists from Guantanamo and charity money funds Occupy Wall Street thuggery? However one answers the question, it is risible to suggest that the big money is all on the conservative side, or that the lofty moral principles are all on the other.
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