(My column for October 2010…)
Ever hear of the “corpse flower”? Also known as the titan arum, it’s a huge plant that only blossoms once in a great while, but when it does, it fills the air with such a stench…
As Election Day nears, and bumper crops of campaign ads blossom across the media landscape, one might well be reminded of the corpse flower – because the smell in the air(waves) keeps getting stinkier and stinkier. If we follow our noses, it’s not hard to locate one of the main sources of the aroma: hard-hitting negative issue ads created by nebulous groups with names like “Stop Slouching, America!” or “The Flag and Apple Pie Foundation” or whatever. These are called “501(c)(4)” groups (after the section of the tax code that defines them). They exist on both ends of the political spectrum, but much more so on the conservative side. (In fact, one of the most notorious at the moment, called “American Crossroads,” was started by none other than George W. Bush’s best buddy Karl Rove.) As a general rule, their donors are wealthy individuals or corporations, who since the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling have been free to invest as much money as they wish into political activities – and as a general rule, those donors remain anonymous.
Indeed, this seems to be the entire point of these organizations, their sole reason for being – to enable individuals and companies to influence political opinion, but without getting negative feedback themselves. I have confirmed this in a number of off-the-record conversations today with folks in Harrisburg and Washington who, shall we say, operate in the places where money and politics meet. Fear of “retribution” of one sort or another, of boycotts, protests, or social stigma, is frequently mentioned as the motivation for this desire for secrecy. They point to the recent (and effective!) actions taken against Target stores, for example, after it became known that Target had made a corporate donation to a candidate known for anti-gay stances.
As someone who campaigned and voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, believe me, I know what it’s like to make an unpopular political decision and then have to answer for it. (Can you believe that there are still people who give me a hard time about that?) But I also know that having the courage to stand up for one’s political beliefs, whatever the consequences, is a price of citizenship and of participation in the political process. If the well-to-do aren’t willing to publicly and visibly endorse, work for, and defend the candidates that support their interests, preferring instead to hide behind shady, manipulative organizations and demagogic advertisements– what does that tell us about them? Can it be that they realize that their choices may run counter to the interests of the general populace, of their employees and customers? Do they fear being held accountable for the things those candidates will do once elected? Do they have guilty consciences?
Are they, in sum, ashamed of themselves?
“Free markets” and “democracies” only work when consumers and citizens can make fully informed decisions, whether it’s about what to buy where, or for whom they should vote. If the wealthy and the corporations feel the need to keep their political involvements concealed from the rest of us, perhaps they need to reexamine those involvements. If they fear negative repercussions from supporting certain candidates or points of view, perhaps they should find other ones – ones that may be less overtly favorable to them, but more conducive to the overall well-being of the country.