Crossposted on The Huffington Post as part of Shadow Convention 2012 Series.
Congressman Todd Akin’s meteoric rise to notoriety over ignorant and offensive remarks about abortion and rape has once again highlighted the dramatic rightward shift of the Republican Party on reproductive rights. The incident also reveals troubling signs about the health of our democracy.
Last week, Akin rebuffed calls from Republicans and Democrats alike for him to discontinue his campaign. In response, the National Senate Republican Committee announced that it would withdraw its resources from the race, criticizing the “misguided campaign” for “putting at great risk many of the issues that he [Akin] and others in the Republican Party are fighting for, including the repeal of ObamaCare.”
Just because the Republican Party is withdrawing from Missouri does not mean that Akin’s candidacy is doomed. Recent polls show Senator McCaskill leading since Akin offered his unsolicited medical “expertise.” Even so, McCaskill remains an endangered incumbent, still barely securing 50 percent. But now, without GOP-backing, Akin will have to rely more heavily on outside spending to regain his footing in the race.
Not surprisingly, Religious Right groups have rushed to Akin’s defense and signaled their willingness to prop up his candidacy. Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, which maintains an affiliated PAC and political nonprofit, has reportedly met with Akin and pledged the group’s support to his campaign. The American Family Association, which like FRC has a nonprofit political arm, not only defended Akin, but characterized his biological assertions as “absolutely right.” Akin also met last week with the Council for National Policy, a secretive coalition of conservative and evangelical leaders, activists, and donors, which should yield additional outside spending. Anti-abortion organizations including Missouri Right to Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, both political nonprofits, have also recommitted themselves to Akin.
The organizations on which Akin’s electoral fortunes depend are the sort freed by Citizens United and subsequent lower court decisions to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates without disclosing their donors. While Super PACs have gotten the most attention for their role in the new Wild West of campaign financing, nonprofits like those defending Akin have accounted for more outside spending. During the 2010 election, nonprofit “social welfare” organizations outspent Super PACs by a 3–2 margin, and two such organizations—Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity—have together spent more than all Super PACs or party committees combined so far in the 2012 election.
Beyond the potential for corruption and the lack of transparency outside spending engenders, this trend has serious consequences for the basic hydraulics of our republican form of government. In building public support for the Constitution, James Madison depicted political factions as the greatest threat to democracy. Factions, he said, imperil democracy by rendering elected officials “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” He warned that “[m]en of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
If Akin is elected, it will be under the auspices of just the sort of factions that Madison feared. While polarized, the political parties at least represent a diverse collection of interests, not the extremely narrow agendas of a Family Research Council or an American Family Association. If Akin or other candidates secure office with the financial backing of nonprofit organizations rather than political parties, they will be beholden to groups with the most parochial of interests. A faction is not prevented from holding hostage legislative debate over the federal budget, global trade, or a judicial appointment in the same way that a party might.
Moreover, the role of outside groups in electoral politics subverts accountability. The chorus of Republican voices calling for Akin to suspend his campaign vividly demonstrates the backlash that the party fears over the candidate’s comments. Parties can be held electorally accountable for the candidates they support and the positions they hold. Who will hold the Family Research Council and the American Family Association accountable for Akin’s actions if he’s elected? No amount of public outrage will dissuade such organizations from supporting candidates like Akin in the future or from wielding influence over beneficiaries to make their issues dominate the legislative agenda.
The Supreme Court has granted the country a brand of politics in which hardly any candidate can express a view so repugnant as to disqualify him from the support of a small but financially potent faction. The role of outside groups must be circumscribed for fear that the nation will, in the words of Madison, succumb to the “mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”