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Editorial: Taking back democracy

Six billion dollars. Give or take a few million, that’s how much money was spent on this year’s presidential and congressional campaigns, making the 2012 election cycle the most expensive in history.

That eye-popping figure offers a disturbing tally of the country’s political system, where big money — in campaigns as well as the halls of Congress — increasingly trumps public interest.

Josh Silver of Northampton, a longtime crusader for clean elections, is determined to change that trend. Silver, who founded Free Press in Northampton 10 years ago to educate the public about media policy, now directs United Republic, a Northampton nonprofit which seeks to get money out of politics.

Silver is savvy about the system he’s taking on and — as part of a coalition of activists called Represent.Us — he’s not alone. Its numbers include former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2008 and, after serving 43 months in prison, now wants to “clean up the system he fell into,” according to Silver.

Among the group’s goals are curbing the spending limits of political action committees so they match those of other political action committees and barring industries from contributing to the politicians who regulate them. The recent elections showed how money has come to influence our political system.

Where did that $6 billion come from? Former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter noted that only one-third of 1 percent of the U.S. population donated more than $200 in the 2012 election cycle. The people — and corporations — that make up that select group are the ones who funded much of the cost of the 1,015,615 campaign ads that ran between June 1 and Oct. 29 this year.

While the outcome of the presidential election suggests money alone can’t guarantee a candidate’s election — Republicans outspent their Democratic counterparts — those dollars shaped the nature of the campaign. An enormous amount of campaign funding was spent on television commercials that ran almost exclusively in the nine battleground states, targeting a shrinking number of the nation’s voters.

The unprecedented rise in campaign spending is due largely to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which eased restrictions on campaign donations from corporations and other interests.

Although Silver cites polls that show that a vast majority of Americans support getting big money out of politics, he and other members of Represent.Us are well aware of how difficult it will be to see legislation adopted that would accomplish that goal.

With that in mind, they have mapped out a battle plan especially geared to the system they’re seeking to change.

For one, the group has attracted members from across the political spectrum, including Wall Street activists and former members of President George W. Bush’s administration. For another, Represent.Us hopes to garner widespread public support, in the form of a million co-sponsors, before introducing its legislation — the so-called American Anti-Corruption Act — to Congress. It will hold off from seeking congressional supporters in the early stages of the campaign, too, with an eye to avoiding partisan politics. “Nobody can call this bill their own other than the American people, for at least a year,” Silver said.

Once it makes it onto the floor of Congress, though, the group plans to track its progress, keeping a close eye on who supports the legislation. For those who oppose it, the campaign will seek to remove them from office by defeating them at the polls.

This coalition of activists has something that’s lacking from many other grassroots campaigns: a realistic, practical approach to reaching its ends and a plan that works within the political system it is trying to change. And its members are well aware of the commitment it will take.

They are in it for the long haul; Silver estimates it could take up to 10 years to get their legislation on the books.

If the group can get its word out effectively — it plans for the campaign’s logo to appear on clothing lines in fashion week — an American public sick of having big money pollute the democratic process might help it reach that goal faster.

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