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Campaign Finance and 'Angry Birds’ Democracy

Ten years after McCain-Feingold, the law remains almost entirely unharmed, but its foundation has collapsed under a barrage of attacks.

  • Jonathan Backer
April 2, 2012

The word ‘radical’ derives from the Latin word for root — radicalis, so radical politics quite literally involve altering society at its roots. The playbook for radical change closely resembles the winning strategy for the smartphone favorite, ‘Angry Birds.’ Any casual ‘Angry Birds’ enthusiast knows that one cannot win by launching birds at individual pigs suspended in precarious structures. Rather, one must target the foundations of the structures themselves and bring them toppling down on top of the unassuming pigs. So too with radical politics.

Recent developments in the area of campaign finance reform contain the telltale signs of ‘Angry Birds’ politics.

Last week marked the 10-year anniversary of the enactment of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), better known as McCain-Feingold. The landmark piece of legislation closed the soft money loophole, which allowed large individual, corporate, and union donors to make unlimited contributions to political parties. It also created more robust regulation for campaign advertisements that air in the days immediately before an election or primary.

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United, opponents of campaign finance reform hailed the decision as the death knell for McCain-Feingold. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin declared BCRA to be “decimated.” Former Republican National Committee general counsel Jan Witold Baran praised the Supreme Court for declaring “most of the fabled McCain-Feingold law unconstitutional” and cheered the end of “legislative meddling with campaign speech.”

But, as former Senator Russ Feingold insisted on the decade anniversary of the legislation he championed, BCRA remains almost entirely unharmed, but its foundation has collapsed under a barrage of ‘Angry Birds’ attacks. In a Roll Call interview, Feingold argued that he and Senator McCain “put a brick on top of a wall, and the brick is intact, but the wall was smashed.” The soft money loophole, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, allowed the political parties to collectively spend more than $170 million on campaign advertisements during the 2000 election, 55 percent of advertising spending during that cycle. Some of the top soft money donors in the 2000 election included unions, such as SEIU and AFSCME, and corporations, such as AT&T, Microsoft, and Phillip Morris, which before Citizens United could not spend directly on campaign ads.

The soft money loophole remains closed, but now, thanks to Citizens United, unions and corporations need not spend through the vehicle of a political party in order to influence the outcome of an election. In the 2010 midterm elections, the first after Citizens United, outside groups spent more than $300 million, almost a 50 percent increase (adjusted for inflation) over the amount of soft money spent on ads in the 2000 cycle. So far in the 2012 election cycle, outside spending has increased more than fourfold over the same point in the 2010 election. In many primary elections, super PACs and other outside groups using corporate and union funding have dramatically outspent the candidates. In the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, super PACs funded 91 percent of the ads.

Such a paradigm shift in how our elections are financed is clearly a symptom of an ‘Angry Birds’ style attack on our campaign laws. Citizens United overturned law that dates back to the Tillman Act of 1907 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. As long as there have been mass politics in the United States, there has been law to protect mass democracy from corporate influence. Until now.

But Citizens United is not the only evidence of ‘Angry Birds’ democracy afoot. The Supreme Court may overturn the Affordable Care Act by narrowing the federal government’s power under the Commerce Clause to a pre-New Deal interpretation. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker refused to negotiate reduced benefits with unions and instead dismantled the collective bargaining rights that the state innovated. On the left, the Occupy movement has responded to regressive tax policies, deregulation, and attacks on safety net programs by condemning the underlying issue of income inequality.

In an era of Angry Birds politics, political victory cannot be achieved through incremental change. Improvements at the margins are too precarious when opponents are willing to expend great political energy to destabilize the foundations. With respect to campaign finance reform, creative policymakers must restock the aviary with proposals for federal public financing that will amplify the voices of small donors. Policies that reduce barriers to voting would promote civic engagement, making it harder for special interests to co-opt people through disingenuous spending sprees.