Super PACs and the Specter of Democracy

Maggie Hennefeld


In the wake of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Committee, a landmark Supreme Court decision that prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations, the notion of “democratic elections” in America now sounds more like an oxymoron than an impetus for political participation.



In 2008, a conservative nonprofit group, Citizens defied the FEC by trying to air a scathing film about Hillary Clinton, on DirecTV. Broadcasting “Hillary: The Movie,” a feature-length attack ad against the popular primary candidate, explicitly violated the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold). In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, a now infamous 5-4 decision that has corrupted political democracy in the name of “free speech.”



Justice Kennedy asserts in his majority opinion: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” A baffling slippage between the free speech of citizens and the unbridled electioneering of corporations has since roiled our political climate.



Civil rights histories of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and marches on Washington do not exactly spring to mind at the mention of Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich’s personal billionaire, whose financial contributions continue to prolong Newt’s flailing candidacy, which has well outlived its political plausibility. The specter of democratic representation is now haunting the United States of America. It has taken the form of a mutant breed of Political Action Committee dubbed the “Super PAC,” which wields unprecedented control over our elections today.



If Newt Gingrich embodies the specter of a real candidate, Mitt Romney must be a robot of one. It seems that every corporate CEO and wealthy investment manager in America has made a stout contribution to Romney’s campaign—unofficially, of course. From Julian Robertson to J.W. Marriott, Jr. to William Koch, the top .0001 percent are determined to make Romney’s bid a success despite its overwhelming lacks of charisma and popular appeal. What corporate CEO could resist a candidate who openly declares: “I like firing people?”


Even Stephen Colbert formed his own Super PAC, “Making A Better Tomorrow, Tommorow,” which ran satirical attack ads in South Carolina against Mitt Romney for being a serial killer. Colbert’s Super PAC ultimately weighed in favor of the most comically viable of the GOP Candidates, Herman Cain, whose own campaign was pure parody—too bad his sex scandal erupted or we might have gotten a Fox News show out of the deal: “9-9-9 at 9:00 with Herman Cain.” Politics have relapsed into pure spectacle.


Indeed, candidates orate for shock value above logic, in the hopes that their sound bites “go viral” and win them a bit of free publicity; after all, they are competing against billionaires, virtually. Going on their 28th Primary debate of the season, Republicans need to keep things entertaining in order sustain their high TV ratings.



Amidst all of the jockeying about how bad contraception, earmarks and healthcare are, I still think that the best quote out of all the debates comes from Ron Paul in  January's New Hampshire debate: “Santorum is one of the top corrupt individuals because he took so much money from the lobbyists.” Although the dripping irony is what makes this quote newsworthy, it would seem that its form has gotten lost in its content.



Romney and Gingrich, too, have been attacking Santorum for his corporate corruption, attempting to rebrand the “the last consistent conservative standing” in the moulds of their own image. After going head-to-head against any number of short-lived frontrunners, Romney must be especially antsy to wrap this one up. With Gingrich on PAC-life support, Santorum seems to be the last obstacle standing between Romney and his coveted nomination.



Romney’s Super PAC already outspends Santorum’s 4-1. Given Romney’s record of flip-flopping, it would be too risky for him to attack Santorum from the left, and he is never going to compete with Santorum’s credentials from the right. Whereas Romney drove to Canada with his Irish Setter strapped to the roof of his car, Santorum  brought his premature dead baby home after his wife had a miscarriage. Singling out Santorum for the corporate complicity that is now the basis of the entire system seems to be Romney’s last resort. While the GOP primary lurches toward a climax, irony has awakened from an abyss and quite literally reached its endpoint.



As California Democrat Malcolm Burnstein opines in his New York Times Letter to the Editor: “Let the Koch brothers’ ideas contend with other ideas based on merit rather than the size of the wallets.” Burnstein’s impassioned plea for the politics of campaign finance reform—which runs from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 Acts of Congress to the 2002 McCain-Feingold—now seems like an impossible dream; perversely, it also kind of has the ring of a PAC attack ad.


Author Bio:

Maggie Hennefeld, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, hails from Brooklyn, NY, and currently lives in Providence, R.I., studying in a Modern Culture and Media Ph.D. Program at Brown University. She worked for four years during college as a writer and section editor of 34th Street, the weekly Arts and Entertainment magazine of The Daily Pennsylvanian. Maggie has published in academic journals including Screen, Media Fields, Alphaville and Comedy Studies. She is currently working on her dissertation, titled "The Politics of Film Comedy: From Vaudeville to Terrorism."

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