Do the Super PACs Undermine Our Democratic System?

From Thinking Outside The Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent: Super PACs (Political Action Committees) are organizations that can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations as long as they do not make contributions to candidates or parties, or collaborate with them in their spending (which is also unlimited). These Super PACs have been the subject of much controversy with many votes believing they should be illegal and that they have too much influence. Even their advertisements have been criticized. But in a country which values the right to free speech should people be banned from expressing their political opinion publicly? Democracy gives everyone the right to have their say. Isn’t that what those contributing to the Super PAC’s are doing? What this question boils down to is the debate over whether there is too much money being spent on and in politics.

A Washington Post/ABC Newspoll conducted in March 2012 revealed that 69% of Americans think Super PACs should be banned. Curiously enough, the two men who stand to gain the most from the Super PACs right now (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney), have both at times expressed criticism of the Super PACs. However, they have been happy enough to enjoy the benefits of the money the Super PACs have been spending. Large amounts of money being spent on political campaigns is nothing new. The problem people have is the fact that donations are unlimited. The average low to middle income American reads that media moguls are contributing millions of dollars and believes that he or she has no say or influence in the entire political process. There is nothing to stop anybody contributing to a Super PAC, as long as they have the means. After all donations do not have a minimum amount of a million dollars. On April 23, 2012 the New Yorker reported the Obama campaign had raised $53 million in March and that the average donation was just $50.78. As the article points out these donations were made directly to the Obama campaign and not to any Super PAC. The argument that the average American’s voice has been lost is wrong. It clearly is possible to have your say and do what you can to support the candidate of your choice.

The fact that Super PACs do not (in theory) collaborate with the official campaigns of the Presidential candidates is highlighted by the overwhelmingly savage nature of their “attack ads”. This has led to both campaigns suffering because of advertisements that have been heavily criticized by the public. One example is an ad run by the Super PAC aligned with Barrack Obama that tries to link the tragic story of a Bain employee who lost his job and then later lost his wife to cancer with the actions of Mitt Romney. It is very unlikely that the President and his team of media strategists would have come up with such an ad and even more unlikely that they would have approved it. This illustrates that having unlimited amounts of money at your disposal is only useful if it is spent wisely.

Since this is a debate about money, just how much money are we talking about? The Wall Street Journal estimates that as of September 10 the Super PACs have spent a combined total of $219, 393, 316. The Super PAC aligned with Mitt Romney (Restore Our Future) had spent nearly $82 million by that date, whereas Priorities USA Action, which supports Barack Obama had spent nearly $25 million. Interestingly, the vast majority of expenditure had been on funding negative ads targeting the rival candidate rather than in support of their own. The most likely reason for this is that the official campaigns are focusing on ads that are supportive of the respective candidate rather than attacking the other candidate.

Super PACs will always be derided by most members of the public simply because they believe the advent of the Super PACs confirms that politics, and the political debate, has been hijacked by the rich. As we have seen, the average citizen can still donate to the campaign of his or her preferred candidate. And given some of the advertising blunders made by the Super PACs many people might believe their money is better spent on an official campaign anyway. If people are worried that others are being overly influenced by the massive spending of the Super PACs then perhaps their focus should be on encouraging all voters to critically evaluate these ads and ask what is relevant to the topics and policies that they feel are important. Those who truly feel Super PACs are undermining democracy need to consider that no matter how much money you have you still only get one vote.

This Wall Street Journal project is a great initiative which tracks all the spending done throughout the 2012 Presidential campaign.

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